Alaska Oil Spill Fuels Concerns Over Arctic Wildlife, Future Drilling

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 20, 2006
A recent spill of about 267,000 gallons (1 million liters) of oil in the
tundra of Alaska's North Slope is raising a new round of questions from
environmental groups about proposed plans to open more land in the
region to oil drilling.

The North Slope region of Alaska (map) borders the Arctic Ocean and contains most of the state's petroleum reserves. It is also home to thousands of migratory birds, caribou, and other creatures.

The oil spill happened in the Prudhoe Bay oil field in late February, but it was not discovered for five days. The spill is the largest in the region's history.

"Thank God this happened in the winter," said Noah Matson, director of the federal lands program for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C.

Wildlife is scarce in the region this time of year but will return when the snow melts this spring and summer.

Environmental groups have fought attempts by the Bush administration to open more lands on the North Slope, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil and gas development on the grounds that it would harm the environment.

The Bush administration believes the oil can be removed safely and that doing so will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and natural gas.

Congress has repeatedly blocked initiatives to open the refuge, though the battle is not over. Last Thursday the U.S. Senate passed a budget resolution that contains instructions to open the refuge to oil drilling. This sets the stage for a battle in the House of Representatives later this year.

Natalie Brandon, policy director for the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington, D.C., said the Prudhoe Bay spill raises questions about the push to open up more areas of the North Slope to oil and gas development.

"The bottom line is these kinds of risks are inherent when you have oil production … Do you want to put that risk somewhere like a wildlife refuge?" she said.

Undetected Spill

The Prudhoe Bay oil spill went undetected for five days before a field worker smelled the crude oil while driving through the area on March 2, an official with oil company BP said at a news conference in Anchorage on March 14.

Preliminary analysis suggests the oil leaked from a quarter-inch (two-thirds of a centimeter) hole corroded in a pipeline, according to Ed Meggert, a spill prevention and response coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Protection in Juneau.

"Both BP and the state are real concerned about that," he said.

The leaky pipe is part of the oil field infrastructure built in the late 1970s. Officials are concerned that other sections of the aging system may be susceptible to leaks in the future.

"That's being examined very closely," Meggert added.

The spill, which covers about 2 acres (0.8 hectares), occurred in one of several caribou-crossing areas where pipes are laid underground and covered with gravel to allow passage by animals.

Brandon said the crossing areas attract water and the pipes underneath are particularly susceptible to corrosion.

While caribou, a migratory species, are currently absent from the North Slope, they'll return to the region this summer.

"Can we get this cleaned up in time for when the caribou get there?" Defenders of Wildlife's Matson asked.

Cleaning Up

Meggert expects the spill to be nearly 100-percent cleaned up before summer.

The liquid pools of oil have almost all been vacuumed, he said. Snow mixed with oil is being melted and the oil recovered. Crews will also scrape oil residue from the tundra.

He expects the spring melt to wash most of the remaining oil into an adjacent lake where floating booms will prevent further spread and allow for recovery.

"We have a pretty good track record cleaning these things up," he said. "I'm pretty confident we can do it, and if [the tundra] doesn't totally recover this year, in time it will, next year or the year after."

But the cleanup is a slow, cold process. The wind chill at Prudhoe Bay was less than -40ºF (-40ºC) Thursday.

"Right now, they are collecting a few hundred gallons a day basically, because it's so cold," said Brandon of the Alaska Wilderness League. "So that's just longer and longer the oil will be sitting out there."

Prior to this spill, the largest in the North Slope was a 38,850-gallon (147,063-liter) spill in 1989.

By contrast, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons (41.6 million liters) into Prince William Sound on Alaska's southern coast that same year.

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