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March 15, 2005

Alaskan Oil: Fool's Gold

Continuing a three decade old argument over drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the US Senate appears likely to make another important vote on the subject in the next 48 hours, according to US Senator John Kerry.

This issue is of interest to Cascadians because Alaska is the main source of Oregon and Washington's oil. (British Columbia runs on Albertan oil; Idaho and western Montana burn fuel from Billings, Montana.) Drilling proponents argue on the grounds of national security, but Alaskan oil is actually far less secure than you might assume. In fact, although it is drilled from American soil, it arrives in the continental United States the same way as oil from the Middle East: by ship.

And the means by which it reaches those ships is insecure: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a piece of infrastructure that is profoundly vulnerable to attack. We wrote, in Cascadia Scorecard 2005:

The Trans-Alaska is 800 miles long, sits elevated above the ground for more than 400 of those miles, and was long ago deemed indefensible by the Pentagon. It is aging and corroding and is near the end of its design life. It has already been sabotaged once, bombed twice, and shot more than 50 times, most recently in 2001 by a drunk with a hunting rifle. In 1999, a disgruntled Canadian ex-convict was apprehended just months before he had planned to blow up three key segments in midwinter, when repair could have taken months. He had begun assembling 14 sophisticated bombs and had pinpointed the pipeline’s weak points. Other near misses are much rumored but classified. The US Department of Homeland Security did reveal in 2004 that its late 2003 “elevated terror alert” was motivated by intelligence suggesting terrorists might attempt to ignite the fuel stockpiles at the pipeline’s Valdez terminus. The opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil extraction, if it happens, would redouble and extend Cascadia’s dependence on this single, insecure pipeline.

A winter pipeline attack at remote points along its length could halt oil transport from the North Slope until Spring. Some fear that the normally-heated oil might even congeal in the pipe, making the Trans-Alaska the "world's largest Chapstick." (This point, and some of what's quoted above, comes from the best in-depth analysis of the ANWR question that I’ve seen: Rocky Mountain Institute’s 2001 article in Foreign Affairs called "Fool's Gold in Alaska.")

(Washington Senator Maria Cantwell is leading opposition to drilling in the refuge. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith is among the small set of Republican senators who are bellwethers on the issue.)

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink


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Tracked on Mar 16, 2005 8:50:08 AM



The refuge may not be as promising as advertised. The above article references "technically recoverable" oil, which means there is a high energy cost to removing and shipping the oil.

In other words, though there is an estimated years worth of oil for the US market in the ground, the energy cost of extracting runs that down to 4.8 months of oil, assuming you could get it all at once.

Risky. That is why oil companies are dropping out of the bidding.

Posted by: Jon S. | Mar 15, 2005 11:32:21 PM

The ideological comments you make about the pipeline are pure rubbish. We have had the ability to repair the pipeline since it was built, and do repair it frequently. The reason most saboteurs can't damage it is simple, the pipeline company, Alyeska monitors is several ways.
What is really happening here is that environmental ideologues oppose the pipeline out of hand. There is no viable "wilderness" in ANWR. It is a part of the world that is inaccessible to 98% of the American population. The fact that the G'wichin natives oppose drilling because they hunt caribou there should tell even the densest environmentalist that it is NOT a "Refuge." The Alaska Natives in the region hunt down the caribou with snow machines and slaughter them to feed to their dogs or just let the carcasses lie. That is the great "native tradition," of the Arctic.
The only true "wildlife refuge" on the North Slope is the oil patch at Prudhoe Bay. No one is allowed to bring in firearms or alcohol in that area and there have been caribou and other animals there since its construction before 1970.
I realize that you cannot confuse environmentalists with facts, but that is the case in ANWR.

Posted by: Don Liston | Mar 16, 2005 7:28:32 AM


Please note that through the Trans Mountain pipeline system operated by Terasen Pipelines, a significant amount of oil is shipped from Alberta to the Washington State refinery complex. For more more information on this subsject, please check: www.terasenpipelines.com
Philippe Reicher
manager, Public Affairs
Terasen Pipelines

Posted by: Philippe Reicher | Apr 19, 2005 11:01:57 AM

While I would be among the first to agree that we need to break away from dependance upon foreign oil as quickly as possible, I strongly disagree that opening up the Alaska wildlife refuge to costly exploration and dangerous drilling techniques is the answer. It is impossible to foretell what damage might befall the ecosystem should the project get the go ahead, or what impact an environmental accident or act of terrorism in that region would have on the North American continent as a whole(new pipelines and drilling platforms are sure to become targets of terrorists organizations who would like nothing more than to be able to put another notch in their terbins or belt.) Before Congress blindly follows Bush's plan they should stop to remember that many of his plan's are based on faulty self serving information, after all he has now murderously sent more than half again as many Americans to an unnecessary death in Iraq (based on faulty or self serving information) as those who died at the hands of Muslim and Arab terrorist on September 11th.

Posted by: Daniel N. Gibson | Apr 19, 2005 5:05:22 PM

I think we need to kick the Liberal Democrats butts and start drilling Anwar

Posted by: Carl Perry | Feb 11, 2006 3:47:15 PM