Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Exploring Alaska's North Slope

The picture gallery in National Geographic makes a good case that the North Slope is not the barren wilderness that is sometimes claimed. In fact, they look quite amazing but a lot of them are taken from the air. How hard is it to get to the North Slope as a tourist? Not easy as far as ANWR is concerned according to Conde Nast circa 2004. However, Abercrombie and Kent now has a trip that includes ANWR on its itinerary (Prince William Sound is also part of this trip).

The NG article is not so much about ANWR but about the rest of the North Slope -- the NPRA or the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska where it claims that the oil industry is more optimistic about finding oil than in ANWR. There is also some historical recounting of the politics of oil drilling in The Specter Haunting Alaska (2005). Tourism cannot replace oil in terms of revenue for Alaska, so while an outfit like A&K can bring luxury travel to places like Serengeti and now even ANWR, it cannot do much to refill the state's treasury.

The main argument for drilling is also the same argument for not drilling -- let's call it the "last great wilderness" argument. Oil companies may try to depict the North Slope as barren and isolated and ease of access/travel to this area may help the public decide whether it is what it is (as former President Clinton might say). See this article here for one depiction, e.g.:
"You may have seen pictures of this pristine refuge--“pristine” being a word so cleverly used by critics of ANWR drilling--showing beautifully flowing streams and herd after herd of free-roaming caribou against a backdrop of purple mountains. .... There’s one problem, though: These are not accurate representations of the coastal plain region. .... But what actually exists in the area that is being considered for possible development? Well, in the winter there’s a large sheet of ice covering everything, and when that melts or shifts, there are puddles, mud holes, marshland and mosquitoes. In fact, as columnist Jonah Goldberg points out, this sterile region is the only place in the U.S. that the government recognizes as both desert and wasteland. Doesn’t sound much like those pictures I’ve been seeing in the media."

(Note: Jonah Goldberg's article is here).

Unfortunately, there are also environmental effects to tourism -- think summer crowds in Yosemite. I found this abstract for a thesis "The North Slope of Alaska and Tourism: Potential Impacts on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)" by LR Everett (2004) on a Google search but no full text unfortunately:
"The hydrocarbon industry of Alaska is currently the leading producer of revenue for the Alaskan state economy. Second only to hydrocarbons is the tourism industry. Tourism has been a viable industry since the 1890's when cruises touted the beauty of glaciers and icebergs along the Alaskan coastline. This industry has seen a steady growth for the past few decades throughout the state. The North Slope of Alaska, particularly Prudhoe Bay and the National Petroleum Reserve, has long been associated with hydrocarbon development and today displays a landscape dotted with gravel drill pads, gas and oil pipelines and housing for the oil workers. While tourism is not usually considered hand in hand with the hydrocarbon industry, it has mimicked the development of hydrocarbons almost since the beginning. Today one not only sees the effects of the oil industry on the North Slope, but also the tourist industry as planes unload dozens of tourists, or tour buses and private vehicles arrive daily via the Dalton Highway. In Deadhorse, hotels that once only housed the oil workers now welcome the tourist, offering tours of the oil fields and adjacent areas and have become jumping off sites for wilderness trips. Tourism will create jobs as well as revenue. However, at present, there are few restrictions or guidelines in place that will deal with the potential impacts of increased tourism. Because of this there are many concerns about the possible impacts tourism and the infrastructure development will have on the North Slope. To list several concerns: (1) What are the impacts of increased tourism and the infrastructure development? (2) What will the impacts be on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which sits a mere 60 miles to the east of Deadhorse? (3) Will hydrocarbon development in ANWR and the associated infrastructure exacerbate potential impact by encouraging greater use of the Refuge by tourists? (4) Will tourism itself have a negative impact on this fragile environment? Safeguarding the fragile environment of ANWR and for that matter all of the North Slope for future generations will require that all types of environmental impacts are carefully considered. The majority of this region is underlain by permafrost and is at risk because of possible global warming coupled with infrastructure development, tourism and potential hydrocarbon development."

It would have been nice to see the results/analysis.

Even though drilling can be limited to a small area, pipelines and other potentially environmentally destabilizing infrastructure will still have to be put in to support new drilling. Still, it's hard not to justify some expanded drilling for oil and perhaps even tap into the vast gas fields (that are currently untapped). How much of Alaska's North Slope should be devoted to nature and how much to extraction? Ignoring all the difficulties, here is one undated proposal.
"This plan recommends two large wilderness areas (wilderness definition 2) coinciding with the two largest caribou herd migration areas, 80,000 for the west Arctic herd and 80,000 for the Porcupine herd; these sizes should be adequate to preserve the associated predator populations as well. ... The plan [also] recommends 80,000 for a reserve (wilderness definition 3) for the operation of traditional Inupiat culture; this area would overlap about 50% of the two herd wilderness areas (Figure 3)."

The map accompanying the NG article shows the locations of Porcupine and Arctic herds. Not surprisingly, this is also where oil companies may want to drill. Here is another blog entry by the Skeptical Optimist.

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