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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

North Slope Slide

Air Date: Week of

As oil companies push to expand their frontiers in the Alaskan arctic, Living On Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick travels to the region to examine the environmental impact of North Slope oil production. He reports on recent convictions for illegal dumping of toxic waste, admissions of skewed environmental studies, and promises by the industry that they've entered a new era of openness and responsibility. This report is part of our continuing coverage of oil in Alaska ten years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Recent mergers in the oil industry are raising alarms about the power these mega-companies will have when they seek approval for drilling in sensitive areas. The merger between British Petroleum and Arco is focusing attention on one such place: the North Slope of Alaska. BP-Arco claims its current fields there are running dry, and pressure is building to expand into surrounding wilderness. The firm contends that new technology allows it to coexist responsibly with nature. But environmental activists point to some problems with wildlife and illegal dumping of waste to argue against expansion. As part of our continuing special coverage of oil in Alaska, we sent Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick to the drilling fields near Prudhoe Bay.

(Noise, screeches)

FITZ PATRICK: An oil rig is a dirty and noisy place, a juggernaut of machinery that juts 15 stories above the treeless tundra.

(Noise continues)

FITZ PATRICK: Outside it's impossibly cold, but inside this derrick a crew of roustabouts in grimy coveralls is aiming for a fresh pocket of oil thousands of feet below.

INGRAM: We're getting ready to start drilling here.

(Noise continues)

FITZ PATRICK: Drill rigs are stark intruders in this remote landscape. And in years past, protecting the fragile environment wasn't a high priority. Driller Bob Ingram has worked the Arctic fields for 22 years.

INGRAM: Back in the old days, when we first started, it was just cram and jam, get the hole done and go about your business. But it's just a much cleaner environment nowadays.

FITZ PATRICK: One improvement involves the chemical soup used to lubricate the drill bit. A slimy fluid known as mud. Thousands of gallons of mud are needed to drill a well, and in the past Mr. Ingram says used mud was dumped in open pits.

INGRAM: Yeah, used to be at the end of a well, when we got done with the mud we'd just dump it and go out on reserve pit. It was just a big mud hole.

FITZ PATRICK: Lead, benzene, mercury, and other chemicals often leaked from the pits onto the tundra. But these days things are different. When a new well is drilled, the used mud is disposed of thousands of feet underground.

INGRAM: We inject it. There's no reserve pits, there's no dumping. It's a lot more environmentally clean.

(Noise continues)

FITZ PATRICK: Another advance involves the drills. Rigs can now drill diagonally, snaking for miles in every direction, from a single spot on the surface. The industry claims these innovations have helped shrink the typical drill site by 90%.

CHAPPEL: The goal is to minimize the number of disturbances that you see on the surface of the Earth, so that our impact on the wildlife that use the areas is rightly reduced. So fewer footprints and smaller footprints.

FITZ PATRICK: Ronnie Chappel is a spokesman for Arco. The smaller human footprint he describes is vital to the industry's future. The oil fields of Alaska's North Slope have been the richest strike in American history. But after 2 decades of production the active fields are beginning to play out. The only way to keep the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and related facilities profitable is to open new frontiers.

CHAPPEL: We're doing everything we can to squeeze all the oil we can out of our existing fields. But that's not going to keep us supplied for the long term. And if this nation is going to continue to produce a significant portion of the oil it consumes, we're going to need access to new areas.

FITZ PATRICK: The problem is those new areas are environmentally sensitive. And many people simply don't trust big oil. The industry has a long record of problems, the most recent black mark being a probe into the illegal dumping of toxic waste: the first criminal prosecution in North Slope history. A contractor for BP, British Petroleum, illegally injected hundreds of barrels of solvents and other toxic wastes into the ground. Deborah Smith prosecutes environmental crimes for the US Justice Department.

SMITH: It costs over $1,000 a barrel to ship them off and dispose of them properly. So, rather than that cost being borne, it was put down the well.

FITZ PATRICK: British Petroleum reported the problem to authorities. Ultimately the drilling contractor pleaded guilty to 15 charges, and paid a $3 million fine. One employee went to prison. BP contends the episode was an isolated mistake, as the company changed the way it deals with waste. BP's director of environmental policy, Steven Taylor, points out that the dumping was exposed by an employee who attended a BP class about proper waste disposal.

TAYLOR: We had gone from a situation where most wastes were just thrown into pits, over to a system whereby we had achieved zero discharge. Now true, there was a violation of environmental law, but I regard it as somewhat positive when the training you provide can identify those kinds of deficiencies and bring them to light so they can be corrected.

FITZ PATRICK: But court records reveal that's only part of the story. The FBI found the dumping had been happening for years and might have been widespread. And a whistleblower turned over a cache of secret tapes, revealing that all along supervisors knew they were breaking the law. Tim Burgess is an assistant US attorney who prosecuted the case.

BURGESS: The whistleblower had originally tied to talk to his immediate supervisors on the North Slope, to have the practice stopped. And I think he was somewhat frustrated, and a little concerned that the practice continued. So he hid this tape recorder on him.

FITZ PATRICK: The tapes have not been released, but one supervisor is quoted as saying, "It's illegal but all the rigs are doing it." Another is quoted ridiculing the oversight of waste disposal by a BP technical. Quote, "He's got to be an absolute idiot not to think that it's being sent somewhere. And in our case, down hole." Despite this evidence, British Petroleum denies illegal dumping is widespread. But the case is not closed, and the criminal probe continues.

(A car engine starts up)

FITZ PATRICK: Waste isn't the only environmental problem on the North Slope. This region is one of America's last bastions of wilderness, home to wolves, polar bears, and caribou.

(Car drives off)

FITZ PATRICK: But driving through the sprawling oil fields, you now pass mor than 2,000 wells and 1,500 miles of pipelines. There are landfills, airports, power plants, even a ramshackle trailer town called Dead Horse.

JOYCE: We do have an industrial complex here in Prudhoe and Kaparik. You see facilities...

FITZ PATRICK: My tour guide is Arco wildlife expert Mike Joyce. He began doing work on the North Slope when none of this was here.

JOYCE: I remember fondly having to camp on the tundra. And I liked the night sounds. You'd hear the caribou calves, you'd hear the loons. It was just a great time to lie there in your sleeping bag and listen to all those sounds sort of sing you to sleep.

FITZ PATRICK: And now we've had a generation of oil production up here. Have you noticed any difference?

JOYCE: I have not seen any change in caribou or bird populations that we've been monitoring over the last 24 years, in the way they behave or distribute and move around the coastal plain.

FITZ PATRICK: In fact, Mr. Joyce says caribou populations have increased, due largely to a warming Arctic climate. Now, if you think that sounds too good to be true, that these oil fields have zero impact on wildlife, then there are plenty of government and university scientists who will say you're right. Professor David Klein of the University of Alaska.

KLEIN: It's not valid to say well, there's been no impact on the caribou. It's so easy to say well, population increased; therefore, there was no impact. It's not that simple.

(Running water and bird song, caribou)

FITZ PATRICK: During summer, the North Slope is a magnet for wildlife. Caribou come here to give birth. So do migratory birds who fly here from throughout the hemisphere. This is one of North America's biggest maternity wards.

(Birds and caribou continue)

FITZ PATRICK: But Professor Klein says the oil fields have displaced some animals, particularly caribou, from some of the best habitat.

KLEIN: Cows that are about to calve, and right after they have their newborn calves, stay away from roads, pipelines, and oil field facilities. And as a consequence, they have abandoned much of their old calving area.

FITZ PATRICK: This has caused decreased body weight among mothers and babies. Oil industry researchers say these changes aren't significant because overall the herd has grown. But Dr. Klein says the problems might affect the caribou's long-term survival.

(Bird songs continue)

FITZ PATRICK: It's the same for birds. There's no conclusive evidence that the oil fields have harmed bird populations overall. But certain species are avoiding parts of the region, and predators, such as foxes and ravens, may be moving in because of garbage dumpsters and handouts of food from workers. Dr. Klein says these subtle impacts are glossed over in studies conducted by industry.

KLEIN: Sometimes I don't think their science is objective, and I think they do make an effort to design studies not as good science but to try to counter some of the other studies that have been done, for example, by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, showing that avoidance is occurring.

FITZ PATRICK: Surprisingly, Steven Taylor, British Petroleum's environmental director, agrees.

TAYLOR: In the past, what he is saying was true. In other words, the oil industry has been guilty of doing extensive scientific studies and then using those studies in the PR arena. BP made a conscientious decision to stop that practice.

FITZ PATRICK: Not everyone agrees the practice has stopped, and the conflicting studies raise what may be the most important question about oil's impact in the Arctic: whom to believe. Critics complain that for 20 years regulators have allowed the oil fields to expand 1 facility at a time, without ever evaluating the cumulative impact. Ann Roethe directs the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.

ROETHE: They view it little piece by little piece, and so what's happened over time is this tremendous stretch of development that no one has stepped back and taken a good look at. No one has really stepped back and taken a look at the big picture.

FITZ PATRICK: Ms. Roethe's group has filed a lawsuit to stop the latest new development until a cumulative assessment is conducted. Meantime, the oil companies are taking their case for expansion to the public.

(Singing: "Yeah, we can make it happen, we can make it happen. Yeah!" Music up and under)

FITZ PATRICK: Commercials like this one are running frequently these days on Alaska television. Against a backdrop of birds and butterflies, an Arco employee promises a new way of doing business.

(Singing continues: "We can make it happen!" Voice-over: "It's good for the environment. It's good for Arco. It's good for the state. It's a win-win situation, and that makes me feel pretty darn good." Singing continues: "We can make it happen, yeah!")

FITZ PATRICK: Critics complain that slick ads like this distort oil's true impact. Sylvia Ward directs the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

WARD: This endless stream of half-truths has saturated public opinion up here. Ad after ad after ad that make you want to feel the oil industry is doing so much good, and that they recognize problems they've had and they're doing better.

FITZ PATRICK: Despite the industry's changes, Ms. Ward says Alaska still can't have both a pristine environment and an endless oil boom. But the hearts and minds effort has brought results. The Clinton Administration recently okayed limited oil development on Federal land to the west of the current fields. And Alaska politicians continue to argue for opening what may be the biggest North Slope prize: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east.

(Machinery noise)

FITZ PATRICK: Whatever happens, both sides agree Alaska's Arctic is at a critical point, possibly as important a moment as the original debate over building the Alaska Pipeline a generation ago. The question is will the oil companies ever leave the North Slope? Or will they stay, until they've pumped out the last drop?

(Noise continues)

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.



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