Another Alaskan oil spill

While the national media has presented little or nothing on the story, another disastrous oil spill has happened in Alaska. The spill took place March 2-3.

The leak was in a pipeline on the North Slope, operated by British Petroleum (BP). It was discovered on a Sunday morning by a BP worker, and is said to have been plugged a few days later. The cause of the leak is unknown. It happened in a remote area populated by caribou herds.

BP was hopeful at first that only a few thousand gallons had leaked onto the tundra, but some of the latest estimates put the amount at more than 250,000 gallons. Clean-up crews recovered more than 50,000 gallons of oil and oily water within a relatively short time, but nobody knows how much oil and other toxic material got into the environment.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) reported the leak occurred at a caribou crossing point, and the area affected is about two acres of tundra hundreds of miles north of Anchorage and includes the edge of a frozen lake.

BP owns the site at Prudhoe Bay, a pumping station that sends oil from the surrounding area into the trans-Alaska pipeline that carries the toxic fuel about 800 miles across the state.

“This historic oil spill is a catastrophe for the environment,” said Natalie Brandon of the Alaska Wilderness League, according to a report in the Independent, a British newspaper. “Tone-deaf politicians in Congress should now stop trying to push for more drilling through sneaky maneuvers. The fact that the oil spill occurred in a caribou crossing area in Prudhoe Bay is a painful reminder of the reality of unchecked oil and gas development across Alaska’s North Slope,” she said.

BP operations at Prudhoe Bay have a less than exemplary history. The Anchorage Daily News, in 2003, told of a leak discovered by BP workers that possibly had been undetected for months, sending about 6,000 gallons of oil and oily water onto the landscape. In June 2002, the ADEC fined BP $150,000 for failing to install a leak-detection system on its oil pipelines in the Prudhoe Bay area, according to news reports of that period. In 2001, BP spilled thousands of gallons of oil into a freshwater lake, according to The New Standard. The Anchorage Daily News said that leak may have gone on for days before workers found it.

An environmental advocacy group, Defenders of Wildlife, said this latest rupture shows the devastation that drilling in wildlife areas can cause. The group said it illustrates that improved technology for drilling does nothing to stop pipeline ruptures down the line.

Within the past few years, backers of expanded drilling in the Alaskan wilderness have said “environmentally gentle” oil extraction and transportation techniques make oil drilling less invasive. Arctic Power, a pro-drilling organization, claims better drills, new well spacing and ice roads have little effect on the environment around a drill site.

The gentle drilling concept is a key factor in provisions before the Congress that would allow oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Three of the nation’s largest environmental groups have refuted that concept, calling the spill “an unfortunate reminder of just how ‘gentle’ oil drilling operations could be if allowed on the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain.”

These groups say lawmakers and other backers of expanded drilling are misleading when they say oil can be removed from the Alaskan wilderness without greatly disrupting the plant and animal life there.

The National Academies states that North Slope wildlife has been disturbed by oil drilling. In a report about three years ago, Academy researchers found that whales changed their coastal migration routes to avoid areas where drilling took place, land mammals have altered their mating and travel habits, and increasing populations of scavenging animals threaten fragile bird species.

The ADEC, The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, say more than 500 spills happen on the North Slope each year. This most recent one is the biggest there in decades, according to the AP.

In addition to the congressional battle over drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, another battle is taking place over a previously untouched corner of the National Petroleum Reserve on the North Slope. The Bush administration is allowing oil companies to prospect for oil and gas in an area of 389,000 acres. Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit, attempting to block that plan. The lawsuit contends the Department of the Interior has violated the Endangered Species Act and other laws in an area notable for its large flocks of migratory geese.

But it isn’t only environmental groups that are against the administration’s plans. A number of prominent energy analysts, and some Washington politicians, argue that the likely yield from unexplored areas of the North Slope is not big enough to justify development.

Alaskan politicians and oil industry lobby groups heavily favor such exploration, claiming it would bring jobs and other benefits to Alaska’s economy. The Bush administration argues that more domestic exploration is essential if the U.S. wants to reduce its dependence on foreign oil and gas, mostly from the Middle East.

The trans-Alaska pipeline carries crude oil from Prudhoe Bay across two mountain ranges to the port of Valdez on the shore of the North Pacific. Shortly after it opened in the 1970s, saboteurs blew up a section of the pipeline, causing a major spill. Five years ago, a hunter accidentally blasted it, causing $7 million in damage.

From the March 22-28, 2006, issue

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