“Black Gold” in Alaska’s Backyard
By “Awake!” correspondent in Alaska
GOLD FOUND IN THE KLONDIKE!” was the dramatic announcement in 1896 that sparked a rush of Canadians and Americans to Alaska and the Yukon. Multitudes were infected with the hope that they would “strike it rich” in the goldfields. In recent years a similar announcement has again started a trek to Alaska. This time the objective is “black gold”—oil, discovered on Alaska’s frigid North Slope.
The presence of oil here was noticed by the Russians, for mention of it appears in their records as early as the 1860’s. Americans learned of the black liquid here around 1880, after the purchase of the land from Russia. The first oil claims were staked in 1897. Perhaps the Eskimos deserve credit for the earliest “discoveries” of oil in the Arctic, since they “mined” chunks of oil seeps and burned them to thaw their driftwood.
Some serious interest in this oil was entertained at the turn of the century, but what started to be a boom ended abruptly in 1904 when oil seekers were intrigued by the new wells in Texas and California. Oil exploration has proceeded on a small scale ever since those days. In the 1950’s the United States Navy did some drilling in this part of the world. However, the program was given up because of climate and inaccessibility. Now, the finds of oil on the remote North Slope lead to speculation that our “backyard” may well hold over forty thousand million barrels of the “black treasure.”
Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska may well be termed our “backyard” because it is more than four hundred miles north of Fairbanks, the jumping-off place for the interior. Once the plane departs from Fairbanks it leaves behind the main populated part of the state. Flying over the Brooks Mountain Range, one can see the North Slope dipping down from the mountains for some 150 miles northward to the Arctic Ocean. This belt of flat, almost featureless tundra spreads from east to west about a thousand miles.
Approaching Prudhoe Bay by air, one first spies a dot on the vast, uninhabited plain. A few minutes more and this speck takes form and turns out to be the oil rig or derrick, towering over the cluster of prefabricated structures, and constituting the only “tree” within hundreds of miles of this spot in the far north.
The earth here bears a year-round armor of permafrost or permanently frozen ground. October, the start of the winter, brings severe cold, temperatures dropping to as low as 70° F below zero. Imagine some of the problems the riggers face in setting up their equipment! When the temperature is 40° F below zero, winds up to fifty miles per hour produce a “chill factor” much lower than the thermometer indicates. Workers must keep in mind that “exposed flesh may freeze within thirty seconds” under such conditions. Metal becomes brittle. Common rubber can shatter like glass.
Severe storms can rage here for several days, preventing the hardiest from work, even though swaddled from head to foot in protective, down-filled parkas, coveralls, thermal underwear and insulated boots. There are no trees to break the winds. Whiteouts, with sky and ground taking on the same indistinguishable snowy glare, can reduce visibility to only five or six feet. Trucks have to be left running 24 hours a day; otherwise it may be impossible to get them running for days or weeks. In midwinter the sun almost disappears for two months and there is barely a twilight glow at midday. During the spells of extreme weather men have to take refuge behind the heavy freezer doors of their bunkhouse.
In summer, thaws transform the tundra surface into a spongy, mosquito-infested quagmire of shallow lakes and streams. Then it is practically impossible to move heavy equipment and machinery. This is why much preparatory work and drilling must be done in winter when the permafrost is solid on the surface.
A Closer Look at the Installation
But now for a closer look at this oil outpost. It appears that before the rig or any other structure can be set up, special foundations must be laid. This is because the upper layers of the 1,000-foot-deep permafrost soften in summer’s warmth, and heavy structures built on the ground surface may sink as much as five to ten feet in one season. So timber pilings are driven twenty feet into the permafrost, deep enough so the bottom ends are embedded in undisturbed frozen soil. Then an island is constructed atop the piling, including a five-foot-thick insulating pad of gravel. The airstrip, the bunkhouses as well as other installations thus have a good solid foundation.
Since the crude oil coming from the depths of the earth is as warm as 160° F, this creates more thawing problems to depths of two hundred feet. Engineers are devising telescoping drill casing and ways of raising the rig periodically to compensate for the thawing, sinking ground below.
Seventy-five men work and live here. Their home appears to be a boxlike structure some two hundred feet long. On closer inspection it turns out to be two long rows of house-trailer units, each 38 feet long, set end to end with a large corridor between. This serves as a hallway. A well-lighted dining hall, a recreation room and baths provide as cheerful and homelike an atmosphere as possible.
Food is delicious and abundant, for men need energy to work twelve-hour shifts seven days a week. There are some men playing card games in the recreation room while others play pool. Still others can watch movies or simply read. No radio or television broadcasts can be picked up at this remote place. The men follow this routine for six weeks, and then they have two weeks off. Most spend their time off with their families in Fairbanks or Anchorage. Why do they choose to work and live in such a remote spot? Generally they will tell you it is because of the high yearly salary.
But all this heavy equipment—how did it get here? Several means of transport were used. The fastest and costliest was by air. Great “Hercules” flying boxcars brought in tractors weighing more than 46,000 pounds each. Other loads they brought in were 40-foot railroad-highway transport vans or the bunkhouse units. Small planes and helicopters transported men and smaller items of equipment. A “Skycrane” helicopter, looking like a giant dragonfly, 88 feet long and weighing some 16,000 pounds, brought in tractors that matched its own weight.
Rugged expediters braved the rigors of the Arctic to deliver equipment and supplies to the Slope via barge, “cat train,” and trucks on the “ice road.” Since no roads originally existed to the interior of the North Slope, Caterpillar tractors and bulldozers dragged trains of sleds loaded with equipment. Over four hundred miles of frozen rivers and mountain slopes they crept, like huge snails, with their loads.
Eighty miles north of Fairbanks is the southern terminus of the 500-mile Walter J. Hickel Highway, first opened in spring of 1968, a two-lane road built literally of snow and ice, and usable only when frozen in winter. Its builders had to battle 70-degree-below-zero temperatures and winds. At one point a quarter-mile-long ice bridge had to be constructed over the Yukon River. On top of the natural buildup of ice there was laid a latticework of 4- to 10-inch-diameter logs. Water was pumped on this structure until it became a reinforced ice bridge. More logs were then added on top, and more water pumped over them until the surface of the ice bridge matched the level of the road approaches on the river banks. Tools, bedding, clothing and food for at least 48 hours are the required emergency gear for truckers using this ice highway.
Tugs and barges fought their way north from two directions to deliver their payloads. Some came around Alaska’s west coast, braving the unpredictable weather and the polar ice cap. Others came north on Canada’s Mackenzie River. These had to watch for shallows in the river caused by the very dry season.
Getting the Oil Out
So much for getting the equipment in and setting up the installations. But now, what about getting the oil out once it is pumped up from deep below?
Some would like to see the Alaska Railroad extended 400 miles or so at a cost of $500 million. The crude oil could then be shipped by rail to Alaskan seaports such as Anchorage, Seward, or Whittier, thence by ocean tanker to market. Direct routes to Prudhoe Bay for tankships and barges are also being considered. Both the western route through the Bering Strait and the Northwest Passage across Canada are being given serious thought, though both are choked most of the year with heavy ice. Specially equipped with heavily armored hull, the SS Manhattan recently managed to get through the hazards of the latter route. (See Awake! of January 22, 1970.) Oil companies have not yet decided upon the practicality of this means of shipping.
It looks as though the Trans-Alaska Pipeline will be the first means of getting the crude oil to market. Spanning the 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska, a huge 48-inch-diameter artery is planned, one that will disgorge 500,000 to 1,000,000 barrels of oil daily at the terminal. The cost is expected to run as high as $900 million.
Preliminary work is already under way on this “plumbing” job that will involve twelve pump stations to bear the “black gold” over three mountain ranges with elevations as high as 4,800 feet. Much of the pipeline will be laid in a ditch on the frozen ground with at least four feet of frozen soil on top to secure it. Digging, blasting and thawing the ground for this slash, six feet wide, eight feet deep and 800 miles long is proving to be quite a challenge. But they hope for completion by 1972.
Value to the Economy
Alaska is keenly interested in the project. It creates employment for many. Oil companies poured more than $900 million into the state treasury when they bid for the privilege of leasing 412,453 acres of North Slope land for development. The world’s increasing demand for petroleum, coupled with the hazards associated with delivery of oil from the politically turbulent Middle East, makes this project all the more attractive. Western nations hope Alaska’s oil supply will relieve the situation.
However, it is all a very costly undertaking. Oil leases have cost over a thousand million dollars. Early wildcat wells cost between $2 and $4 million apiece. Costs of early exploration and now also of the pipeline have truly pushed this whole undertaking into one costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Then there are other costs, not immediately measurable in dollars and cents. Conservationists have spoken out loudly about the cost to the land and its natural beauties. Ecology studies, participated in by the oil companies, are seeking means to limit the damage to tundra vegetation. The thin layer of moss and lichens on the surface serves to insulate the permafrost. Remove this protective layer and the resulting thawing of the permafrost can produce erosion, slumping and surface subsidences. Where the tundra vegetation must be disturbed, effort must be made to find plants and grasses that will replace it and manage to grow in this harsh climate.
And how about the cost as it affects animal life? Will the thousands of caribou be free to migrate back and forth across the tundra each year as they have done for centuries? Can the waterfowl continue to enjoy unpolluted lakes and ponds? Will the Arctic fox, grizzly bear, wolf and squirrel continue to romp unmolested across the slopes?
Conservationists plead for orderly disposal of wastes and trash. Scrap oil drums, machinery and other refuse items from early exploration dot the Slope. Steel and other solid materials hardly deteriorate in this frigid climate. Petroleum companies are increasingly aware of their responsibilities in this regard, and are taking some steps to preserve the terrain, protect the wildlife and keep down the costs in terms of sacrificing natural beauties. Cleanup projects have already been started and precautions are being taken for the future.
The vast work entailed in developing the oil industry in this far-northern location is truly impressive. And Alaskans congratulate themselves on the fact that soon people all over the world will be using some of this “black gold” from their backyard.
[Picture on page 9]
On the North Slope, a flat tundra, the oil rig or derrick constitutes the only “tree” within hundreds of miles