INTERNATIONAL DESK: Alaska, the North Slope
ROY HAS GUIDED his 18-wheeler truck and trailer round the last few hairpin bends of Atigun Pass and down onto the North Slope. Behind us lies 300 miles of one of the most remarkable roads in the world. It connects the oil field at Prudhoe Bay with Fairbanks.
I have been riding with Roy since dawn. It has been several hours since we paused at the world's most northerly truck stop, crossed the Arctic Circle and left far behind the last tree. The temperature here has dropped to minus 39 degrees Fahrenheit — not too bad for these parts. It often goes down to minus 60 degrees.
Roy is one of the drivers who regularly drive the "haul road" as it is called, carrying supplies to the oil fields. His dispatchers had asked him to make a quick trip north with a load of antifreeze and some urgently needed drilling equipment. He'd invited me along, explaining that I could not appreciate this country by flying over it. One has to experience it at ground level, he says.
The North Slope "Look ahead!" Roy shouted suddenly. The North Slope is a great place to look ahead. Drilling platform stands among ice floes of Cook Inlet. At the top of the world, the earth's curvature begins to flatten out slightly, and you can literally see farther.
Before us lies a wide snow-covered plain. Only a few low hills off to the right break the vast expanse. A herd of caribou are grazing in the middle distance. The gray-white ribbon of road stretches out ahead — barely distinguishable from the frozen wilderness on either side. Somewhere out there, a hundred or more miles north, is Prudhoe Bay. Between us and Prudhoe Bay is nothing but frozen snow-covered tundra, the narrow strip of road and the pipeline.
The pipeline has been with us all day — sometimes to the right, then burrowing underground and appearing on the left. The Trans-Alaska pipeline is an engineering success story that has been compared to the space shuttle and the moon landing. Pipelines have been built that are longer and wider, but never before has a pipeline been built through such hostile territory and against such incredible odds.
Consider the challenge: In July 1968, after years of exploration, oil was discovered in commercial quantities at Prudhoe Bay, in the far north of Alaska. It was one of the greatest finds in recent oil exploration history — and promised to go a long way toward making the United States less dependent on imported oil. That is, if the oil could be brought out.
The North Slope of Alaska is one of the most inhospitable places imaginable. In winter the sun does not rise above the horizon for months, and the temperature can reach (with the wind chill factor) minus 115 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature diesel fuel will freeze, steel can shatter like glass, and a man cannot live more than a few minutes without special protection. The ground is permanently frozen (permafrost) to a depth of several hundred feet and the sea remains blocked with ice for all but six weeks of the year.
Many schemes were advanced for getting the oil out — including submarines that could cruise beneath the ice and even a fleet of giant aircraft that could fly the crude oil south. But finally the decision was made that the safest and most efficient way was to build a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez on the south coast of Alaska. The route lay across 800 of the most difficult miles on earth. Three mountain ranges and 800 rivers and streams had to be crossed. Special precautions had to be taken to make sure the oil (which comes out of the earth scalding hot and stays warm on its six-day trip to Valdez) didn't melt the permafrost. If that happened, portions of the pipeline could sink — and eventually break in two.
New materials and techniques had to be developed to solve problems never before encountered. Construction began on April 29, 1974, and by August 1977 the first shipment of North Slope oil left Valdez for the southern markets. The pipeline is one of the most audacious projects that man has accomplished — a triumph of technology and determination over almost insurmountable odds.
But not everyone appreciated that triumph.
Development Versus Conservation From the beginning the pipeline — and indeed the whole concept of harvesting Alaska's natural resources — has met opposition from those determined to preserve the environment. The pipeline, they said, would disrupt the delicate ecology of the Arctic and cause more harm to already endangered species.
This conflict between the pro-development and the pro-conservation camps continues as a bitter point of contention in Alaska.
Those who want to develop Alaska believe that the world needs more energy. Alaska is one of the earth's last unexploited treasure troves.
"Just look at this," an executive of Alaskan Oil and Gas Association said to me as he unrolled a map of the state. Superimposed on the map were several areas shaded and crosshatched in bright colors. They represented Alaska's oil and gas reserves.
"And these are just the ones we know about — places that we believe could produce," he explained. Most of the state has not been thoroughly explored for oil and gas yet. Nobody knows for certain exactly how much lies beneath the surface. Some have estimated that Alaska's reserves are comparable to those of Saudi Arabia. But even the most conservative agree that there is much, much more to be found. "And look — we have only just begun," the executive continued. "These are the only areas producing at the moment." He pointed to three tiny circles on the map — two above the Arctic Circle and one in Cook Inlet, just south of Anchorage. The North Slope oil field alone contains 30 percent of the proven North American reserves.
Oil is just the start. With the oil comes natural gas. At the moment there is no way to transport this, so it is pumped back underground.
The northern regions of the world are rich in the strategic minerals without which modern civilization could not survive — copper, nickel, gold, silver, zinc, beryllium, tin, chromium and molybdenum. Canada and Russia mine their Arctic territories extensively. By contrast, there is not one hard rock mining operation of any significance in Alaska, even though the indication is that the territory is as rich or maybe even richer than neighboring countries.
Alaska also has good farmland, millions of acres of virgin forests and trillions of tons of high-grade coal. The 49th state is the greatest untapped storehouse of energy and reserves in the United States — and possibly the world.
Alaska does not give up its wealth easily. It is a wild and sometimes brutal country, but developers have risen to the challenge. They believe that the continued progress of civilization depends on a steady supply of fuels and minerals. "Just give us the chance, and we will get them out — and everyone will benefit," declare potential developers.
But, say the environmentalists, Alaska is not just a warehouse of fuel and minerals. It is a region of unparalleled natural beauty — one of the last great wilderness areas left. The environmentalists come in all shapes and sizes — moderate and extreme, balanced and fanatical. Many of these groups bitterly opposed the pipeline. They were afraid of the effect on the ecology should a massive oil spill occur. They were also concerned that the pipeline would block the migration routes of the caribou herds and disturb the breeding grounds of several rare species of birds.
(Some of their concerns have proven to be overly cautious. Some miles back Roy pointed out one of the pumping stations that keeps the oil moving. It had been re-sited at a cost of many millions of dollars to avoid the nesting grounds of an "endangered species." The birds promptly moved their breeding ground nearer to the new site. Some even nested in the pumping station!)
Some groups go as far as to say that no development should be allowed — Alaska should remain undisturbed — a vast national park. Some arguments can be rather shortsighted. One undoubtedly sincere young lady told me that her group was most upset with the "ruthless exploitations" by the oil companies. However, she added that they were generally satisfied with the activities of the military, because they site their installations with a genuine regard for the wildlife and the landscape. I asked her if perhaps facilities for nuclear bombers and missiles don't pose a greater potential threat to the environment than an oil spill. That ended the conversation. I got the feeling that she had not thought of that.
But not all conservationists are fanatics or amateurs, nor their fears unfounded. A massive oil spill could be disastrous, and once a species becomes extinct — it's gone. No amount of biological technology can bring it back. There is still much we don't know about the Arctic, and we must be careful. As the Sierra Club, the leading protectionist group, explains, "We don't stand in blind opposition to progress; but rather, opposition to blind progress." The club has formed a powerful lobby that forces the oil companies and other developers to think long and hard before plunging ahead with a new venture. And then, to proceed with caution.
Because of this, the North Slope oil development has so far had little negative impact on the environment. The pipeline was engineered (some say over-engineered) to avoid harm to the wildlife and their habitat.
But the consistent wrangling is having an effect on Alaska's future. Developers resent that millions of acres have already been placed off limits to exploration or development. They feel they have quite enough problems with the environment without having to contend with harassment from environmentalists.
In this harsh climate, exploration of any kind is horrendously expensive. Delays cost dearly. To accomplish anything up here you need years of lead time. Some operations can only be carried on a few weeks out of the year, like, for example, bringing in heavy equipment by sea in the brief period when the ice shelf retreats offshore. If you miss that window of opportunity — that's it until next summer. Many organizations who came with money, expertise and enthusiasm to explore have packed up and gone home in frustration.
These, then, are the arguments, and it is hard to spend time in Alaska without being tempted to take sides. The zeal and confidence of the oil men is contagious, but the voice of caution from moderate environmentalists is hard to ignore.
There is another much more essential aspect to this question, however, that both sides have overlooked. It must be considered if Alaska and Alaskans are ever to realize their full potential.
The Bigger Issues The survival of civilization does not just depend on the continued availability of energy and raw materials. We are now producing more than ever before, and yet each year we stand in greater peril of destruction. Science, technology, inventiveness and engineering have not of themselves brought us to this impasse. The most primitive and undeveloped men still find ways to hate and destroy each other. But no scientific breakthrough has ever led us closer to controlling the real cause of man's problems — his human nature. Men just do not know how to live together in peace, whether they live in the Stone Age or the Space Age. Anything we do and everywhere we go ends in envy, hatred, misery and anger. Alaska — the magnificent wilderness — is becoming just another place for men to go and eventually hate, resent, exploit and take from one another.
Alaskan newspapers tell the same dismal tale of crime, suicide, divorce, alcoholism, child pornography, unemployment and the disenchantment that characterizes life in most of the so-called civilized world.
A longtime resident of the state told me, "Since the oil came and we became prosperous, our lifestyle has changed for the worse. Why can't we have it both ways — prosperity and peace?"
Because man does not know how to have peace, that's why.
The apostle Paul told us that 2,000 years ago and nothing that has happened since has proved him wrong.
The Alaskan pipeline has shown once again that when man puts his mind to it he seems to be able to conquer any physical obstacle. That is why God put a brake on progress at the building of the tower of Babel by confusing man's ability to communicate easily. Otherwise, God said, "Nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do" (Gen. 11:6). Now, 4,000 years later, man once again is doing anything he imagines to do. But the increase in knowledge brings us no closer to peace. Instead, we use what we learn to bring our world ever closer to ultimate disaster.
If we could only understand that the energy man needs to solve his problems does not lie beneath the Arctic ice — or anywhere else on earth. And, likewise, that in order to save endangered species it is not necessary to halt progress. God told man not only to replenish the earth, but also to "subdue it" (Gen. 1:28). The Creator would have taught us how to do that without wrecking the creation. He would have given us the spiritual insight we need for our well-being. But man thought he knew better — and chose to try to discover those things for himself apart from God. (A free booklet, Never Before Understood - Why Humanity Cannot Solve Its Evils, explains this subject in detail.)
And so the search goes on. We probe the uttermost parts of the earth, desperately hoping to replenish our energy before the available stocks run out. And wherever we go we take our way of life — fighting, bickering, vanity, greed, self-righteousness — our inability to get along with each other. And that is by far the greatest threat to the well-being of the caribou, the arctic fox, the peregrine falcon, the short-tailed albatross and every other living creature!
In spite of (and because of) his inventive genius, mankind is about to produce a catastrophe that could destroy everything. As Jesus said, "Unless those days be shortened, there should no flesh be saved" — man or beast. Because human beings cannot find a way to peace all life must now be considered an "endangered species"! Thank God these days will be shortened.
Our greatest need today is not more oil — or less development. We need a better way of life. That will only come with the restoration of the government of God. Even here — at the top of the world.