The Cost of Drilling: Oil in Alaska

To drill or not to drill? As debate over energy rages, one inspired leader fights for balance.

By Bob Reiss from Reader's Digest Magazine | June 2012

The Cost of Drilling: Oil in AlaskaPhotograph by Robbie McClaranIn the Chukchi Sea, Shell plans to drill shallow wells roughly 70 miles from the coast
Alaska’s North Slope is an Arctic Serengeti, a gorgeous tundra dotted by tens of thousands of elliptical freshwater lakes, a land so vast that flying above it, looking down, humans seem an afterthought. Caribou herds in the hundreds of thousands roam freely, as do polar bears in the north and grizzlies farther south, near mountains of the Brooks Range. There are wolves and foxes, and spring skies are blanketed by millions of migrating birds. Tens of thousands of ivory-tusked walrus, seals, and bowhead and grey whales swim offshore.

Here, during the cold loveliness of winter, falling snow has the consistency of sand and clings to rooftops and stop signs in Barrow. Emerald streaks of aurora borealis cross star-drenched skies.

And in summer, during full-time daylight, bright Arctic flowers bloom. Immense snowy owls scan the tundra from hummocks. Mouselike lemmings scamper in the high grass. Fish and birds grow fat. Front yards are filled with drying racks for fur or fish; boats; sticks for probing the sea ice to make sure it is solid; snowmobiles.

And then there’s the oil.

Lots of oil.

In the old days, it bubbled up as dark seeps. Then commercial quantities were announced in 1968, and oil gushed from beneath the land, in Prudhoe Bay, 200 miles east of Itta’s home, to flow south through an 800-mile pipeline to the terminal at Valdez and on to the rest of America. By the 1980s—peak flow—up to 25 percent of U.S. oil came from that pipeline.

But now the pipeline runs only one third full and is in danger of shutting down from lack of supply. At the same time, government scientists estimate that up to 22 percent of all undiscovered oil and gas on earth lies in polar regions, much of it off Alaska. That’s why Shell paid more than $2 billion for leases there and tried, for the past five years, to drill a few exploratory wells. First, they were stopped by Itta’s lawyers, teamed with other native and environmental groups. Then the holdup came from federal agencies, cautious after the Gulf explosion.

In 2005, when Itta ran for mayor, he opposed all Arctic offshore drilling. In many ways his life until then was preparation for the fight. The world he grew up in was so different from today that one of his friends told me it’s as if he’d telescoped 150 years of history into one lifetime.

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