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Alaska Pipeline Doomsayings Revisited
As PBS releases a special about the oil delivery system, the Business & Media Institute goes back in time to recall environmentalists’ pipe dream: stopping it.

By R. Warren Anderson
Business & Media Institute
April 19, 2006

Send this page to a friend! (click here)     After the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, it didn’t take long for environmentalists to cry gloom and doom and for the media to hype those claims. From caribou dying to earthquakes to “all hell breaking loose,” there was no shortage of catastrophic predictions – though the Alaska pipeline now boasts great success roughly 30 years later.

     Construction on the pipeline began in 1975, and oil first moved through it on June 20, 1977. Former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton summed up its success in 2003 that “Today the pipeline produces 17 percent of our domestic petroleum. It has pumped nearly 14 billion barrels of oil and $400 billion into our economy. We need the pipeline even more now than when it was built.”

     Just in time for the PBS special, “The Alaska Pipeline,” set to air April 24 on PBS, theBusiness & Media Institute compared predictions from the pipeline’s inception to the realities of the past three decades.

  • Propaganda, Not Policy: Approval of the pipeline “was not based on facts but on oil industry propaganda,” according to some of the Department of Interior’s top ecologists, reported The Washington Post on Feb. 11, 1971. The New York Times ran an editorial that began, “passage of the Alaska pipeline bill is the triumph of scare propaganda and economic pressure over reasoned public policy” on Nov. 14, 1973.

Reality: Despite those claims, the pipeline has had tremendous policy implications. It created tens of thousands of jobs, from the construction of the pipeline in Alaska to the manufacturing of the pipe in Pennsylvania, to the building of the tankers to transport the oil in Louisiana.

And as gas prices rise going into another summer driving season, the pipeline’s effect on the oil market bears mentioning. “Alaska produces about 800,000 barrels a day or about 1 percent of the world market of 73.5 million barrels a day,” said Peter Van Doren of the Cato Institute.
“A loss of that production would increase prices by at least 10 to 16 percent. In the 1980s, when production was 1.8 million barrels a day and the world market was smaller (54 mbd), the loss of Alaskan oil would have increased world oil prices by 30 to 50 percent.”

  • Bye-bye Caribou?: Many people suddenly developed a “passionate concern for the mating habits of Alaska caribou and campaign noisily against intrusion of Arctic pipelines into this essential activity,” reported The Christian Science Monitor on Oct. 10, 1972. The New York Times on Oct. 14, 1973, said the question is “whether the caribou will go the way of the buffalo.”

Reality: Thirty years later we can see the effects of the pipeline on the caribou. Walter Hickel, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and governor of Alaska, said that the caribou herd “has not only survived, but flourished. In 1977, as the Prudhoe region started delivering oil to America's southern 48 states, the Central Arctic caribou herd numbered 6,000; it has since grown to 27,128.” Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game Web site reports that “in general, caribou have not been adversely affected by human activities in Alaska.” Pipelines and other manmade objects have been built to accommodate caribou movements, and the animals have adapted to people and machines.

  • Earthquake Risk: Larry Moss of the Sierra Club stated in the Los Angeles Times on June 14, 1973, that the oil industry “has continued, single-mindedly, its attempt to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.” Support for this claim was that the pipeline had “basic design flaws which cannot really be overcome by engineering ingenuity.” This was supposedly because the pipe “would cross one of the most active earthquake zones in the world, would scar and despoil vast tracts of magnificent, undisturbed country and would threaten extensive oil spills in the numerous rivers which the pipeline would cross.”

    A report from “top ecologists” at the Department of the Interior claimed that dangers of “severance in earthquake prone areas” were “inadequately dealt with,” read The Washington Post on Feb. 11, 1971. “The Alaskan area involved is renowned for its extreme seismic activity,” the Post reiterated on May 7, 1972. In the 70 years before 1972, 23 major earthquakes had “clobbered the terrain” where the Alaskan pipeline would be built, any one of which “could have caused a catastrophic break in the pipe,” the Post article continued.

Reality: The time passed since the construction of the pipeline allows for testing of this claim. On Nov. 3, 2002, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Alaska. It was the worst earthquake recorded on Alaska’s Denali fault, and considered a once-in-600-years event. The New York Times on Nov. 5, 2002, called it “one of the largest earthquakes in American history,” which, had it struck a major city, “would have destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed many people.” Tremors caused movements around Yellowstone National Park and even rocked boats in Louisiana. In comparison, the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was weaker at 7.8.

Yet the pipeline “withstood the powerful quake just as designed – damaged but not ruptured,” according to the Nov. 10, 2002, Los Angeles Times. “If anything, last week's powerful earthquake shows that the pipeline could have withstood more,” the pipeline’s seismic design coordinator said. The New York Times article said that “After an aerial survey today, pipeline officials said they found no leaks in the structure.”

Gale Norton summarized the effects: “The Alaska pipeline was just 60 miles from the quake's epicenter. It shook back and forth, some supporting struts broke. But the pipeline held. It did not crack. Not a drop of oil was spilled. No one was injured. The safety systems put in place worked to perfection.” The predicted “design flaws” that supposedly couldn’t be “overcome by engineering ingenuity” weren’t mentioned after the earthquake occurred.

  • ‘Misplaced Effort’: Less than five months after the announcement of the oil discovery and proposed pipeline, members of the Sierra Club complained that they were invited to only two “superficial meetings” where they “were told nothing significant,” according to The New York Times on July 5, 1969. The Sierra Club and their fellow environmentalists from the Wilderness Society, Friends of the Earth, and Environmental Defense Fund Inc. delayed pipeline progress with lawsuits. The Feb. 13, 1973, New York Times said the delay in construction “is the best the oil companies can expect, while the possibility grows ever livelier that after years of misplaced effort the Alaska pipeline will join such forgotten and costly fantasies as the South Sea Bubble.”

Reality: That “misplaced effort” has pumped 15 billion barrels of oil into the U.S. economy. Adrian Herrera of Arctic Power, an Alaska-based group that advocates oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, said the effects of the pipeline have “been huge. The benefit is both economic and social.” Infrastructure that was built in conjunction with the pipeline has a trickle-down effect that has helped all businesses. “Nationwide the effect has been quite profound,” he continued. “Not just a direct benefit … there’s indirect benefits too.” Jobs supporting the pipeline have been spread across the nation, as have the advantages from having more oil available.

  • Pipeline Breaking: On May 6, 1970, The New York Times said that the head of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory warned that “the proposed trans-Alaska oil pipeline might break and wreak great damage to the environment.”

Reality: Despite leaks in the past, the pipeline has improved and is leaking less. The United States has the most stringent environmental controls on oil. Any spill of more than a teaspoon is reported. The whole pipeline is scanned every day from the ground or helicopters for leaks. Despite being three decades old, the pipeline is more modern than many others around the world.

  • ‘All Hell’ to Break Loose: The New York Times on Nov 10, 1974, quoted an internationally known professor on Arctic soils from Rutgers University. He predicted “‘all hell will break loose’ on Alaska’s north slope within five years after hot oil starts flowing through the trans-Alaska pipeline.” He then “compared the spread of damage to the permafrost ‘to a cancer that takes five years.’”

Reality: Of the 800-mile pipeline, 420 miles are above ground to avoid the permafrost. When above ground, it has a 2-inch “heat pipe” containing pure ammonia. When the air is cooler than the ground, the ammonia vaporizes and draws the heat from the earth. The ammonia then condenses on the pipe, starting the process again.

Major Oil Incidents Not Caused by Pipeline
     The pipeline has not been without accidents – but the biggest ones did not involve pipeline malfunctions. On Feb. 15, 1978, there was a leak of 16,000 barrels. “There are some indications that it is sabotage. You have to suspect foul play,” said Morris Turner of the Alaska Pipeline Office, according to The Washington Post on Feb. 16, 1978. No one was ever charged in that incident. On Oct. 4, 2001, Daniel Carson Lewis, who had been drinking, shot the pipeline and caused a leak of more than 6,000 barrels of oil. The Los Angeles Times on Oct. 21, 2001, quoted a state policeman as saying, “Alcohol and a guy with a gun – nothing deeper than that.”

     The largest oil-related incident in Alaska since the pipeline was built was the Exxon Valdez incident – not a pipeline failure, but a ship crashing because of human error. On March 24, 1989, a ship hit a reef and spilled more than more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The ship’s captain, Joe Hazelwood, had been drinking before the ship left, which was illegal. But the time of the ship’s departure changed, and had it not, then he wouldn’t have broken the law. Hazelwood also left the deck to do other work, leaving the ship with an under-qualified sailor – a breech of company policy.

     While many animals were killed and the environment was damaged, it has since bounced back. The 2005 salmon run “was so large that millions of fish were left to die and rot in hatchery areas.” Exxon has paid out $3.5 billion in relation to the oil spill. Alyeska, a consortium of oil companies of which Exxon is a part, spends around $60 million a year on oil spill prevention in Prince William Sound.

For more information:

Pipeline Quick Facts

Conditions of Prince William Sound

Arctic Power