One of the shortest stops of our tour was the 30 minutes we spent at an information point along the Alaska Pipeline north of Fairbanks. This pipeline has been in operation since 1977 moving oil drilled on the North Slope above the Arctic Circle over 800 miles south to Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port. Much of it is shipped onward to the west coast of the US and Canada for processing, but about 10% of the crude is refined at three small refineries in Alaska. ( https://www.akbizmag.com/industry/oil-gas/where-does-all-that-oil-go/)
The pipeline provides lots of jobs. Beyond the jobs that were available when the pipeline was being built, today, maintenance and security are directly related. In addition, trucks provide continual supply, which means supplemental employment along the highway route for stores, restaurants, lodging, and more.
We were told there have been only a few past environmental issues. Most of the past spills that have taken place are related to the failure of the pipeline to deal with heaves and other movements in the permafrost. The supports holding the pipeline are engineered to keep the soil heated while remaining flexible for the numerous seismic movements that also occur. Environmental concerns are increasing as as the rapidly melting permafrost is affecting the stability of the pipeline as the formerly stable structure is showing signs of “wobble”. (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/11072021/thawing-permafrost-trans-alaska-pipeline/#:~:text=Spills%20have%20ranged%20from%20less,equipment%20failure%20and%20operator%20error.)
Of course, we all remember the Exxon Valdez massive oil spill occurred when a tanker picking up crude in Valdez ran aground in 1989. Besides the loss of sea life, it is important to remember that this massive environmental disaster caused over $300 million of economic harm to more than 32 thousand people whose livelihoods depended on commercial fishing. (https://usa.oceana.org/exxon-valdez-oil-spill-facts/) The clean-up is still ongoing, as pockets of deep pollution are still being identified, 21 years later. (https://priceofoil.org/2010/01/19/21-years-later-oil-still-pollutes-prince-william-sound/#:~:text=The%20oil%20spill%20may%20have,in%20the%20Sound’s%20gravel%20beaches.)
While many Alaskans support increasing drilling, even inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (https://www.usnews.com/debate-club/is-it-time-to-drill-in-the-arctic-refuge/majority-of-alaskans-agree-with-drilling-in-anwr), most support relates to the income from the pipeline. Now with the Russian oil no longer being imported, the cry from people throughout the nation to increase drilling production is gaining noise and increasing the flow of oil from the North Slope seems to be the answer of choice by many people. However, the best industry projections indicate that additional Alaska crude would have a minimal potential of reducing gasoline prices at the pump. Environmental concerns are brushed away by indicating the care already taken elsewhere on the North Slope. However, environmental concerns are expressed by others to specify that the Refuge is the home for huge herds and sustains the indigenous population. Introducing intense industrial activity will disrupt all of that. (https://www.wilderness.org/wild-places/alaska/oil-drilling-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge) We see here the age-old decision-making process about the value of resources and who has the power to influence any changes.
I just filled up my gas tank and while I was not pleased to see the cost was over $45, I drive a Prius that gets about 50mpg and I will not gas up again for several weeks. I made my choice several car purchases ago. Even a decade ago, the writing was clearly on the wall that our environmental costs were going to kill us all, sooner or later. As long as we keep acting like we need to use up the earth and all its resources, I suppose we will….and the challenge will come sooner for our grandchildren than we hope.