The camping party was brought to this northern tundra by a bush plane, tossed around like a wiffle ball as it flew over the craggy peaks of the Brooks Range. Bulbous bush tyres bounced along a gravel riverbed; conservationists, a handful of amateur explorers and their paraphernalia were unloaded and left alone on the North Slope.
The landscape’s most obvious trait is absence. The closest human habitation, Point Lay (pop. 176) is some 130km (80 miles) west. There is no signal for a mobile phone. There are no houses, no roads, nor even trails, save for those trodden by game. Snow is smeared in bands on gentle hills. As the Arctic has warmed the brush has inched taller and the tundra grown greener. For now, though, this is still too far north for trees.
But the emptiness is alive. Northern white anemones and purple saxifrage soak up precious sun, full grown, tiny and miraculous, shimmying defiantly in the howling summer wind. Braided rivers diverge and converge around long strips of gravel. Nesting among the mud, flowers and cotton grass are the birds—here the golden plover, a ribbon of white feathers draped from brow to breast, there the willow ptarmigan, mottled brown in summer, white when the snows come.
Musk oxen leave tufts of qiviut, an underfur warmer than wool, caught in low thickets of silvery willow. Hundreds of thousands of caribou travel north across the tundra to the coast to calve, hoping the sea breeze will bring respite from the mosquitoes: a caribou can lose two litres of blood to them over the summer. Along the game trails are pits dug long ago by indigenous hunters from which they might wait for passing caribou then move, swiftly, to strike.
There is life across the North Slope’s surface. Beneath it there is ice—or at least frozen soil. The warmth of a single summer never gets deep enough to undo the work of winter. The summed effect of many warmer summers, though, is reaching deeper; the permafrost is thinning. Below the permafrost are sedimentary rocks, some of them laid down in a basin created by the rise of the Brooks Range to the south. The seas in that basin, too, were full of life. Some of its buried, liquefied remains went on to follow their own slow migration to what today are oilfields.
A visitor sees this expanse as wilderness; indigenous people who have lived here for millennia would call it home. Climate science sees it as the retreating edge of the cryosphere, the part of the planet which is frozen. Federal law calls it the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (npr-a). In Alaska land, ice and oil stack neatly one over the other. In the courts they come into conflict.
Persistent fights over who controls Alaska’s land, how it should be developed and how it should be protected are ramping up in the face of uncertainty over both oil and ice. Alaska’s crude-oil output is nearly 80% below the peak it reached in 1988, when the great Prudhoe Bay field was in its pomp. The state, still sorely dependent on oil revenue, is keen to slow its decline and ideally increase production.
ConocoPhillips is eager to help. In 2000 the oil major established a new site called Alpine west of Prudhoe Bay at the edge of npr-a, some 350km across the tundra from the frisky grizzlies. The company boasts of its small environmental footprint, with horizontal wells sucking up oil miles from the main facility. If the extraction’s immediate impact on the environment is lessened, so is the environment’s impact on those doing the extracting. In the early days of Alaska’s oil boom a reporter marvelled at oil workers’ fortitude, noting that “another species has been added to the handful capable of surviving in the North Slope wilderness—the oil man.” When your correspondent flew to Alpine with Conoco half a century later the oil men had made themselves at home. The maze of mint-green structures houses a gym and a cafeteria. Flat-screen televisions show Fox News and “The Office”.
Since establishing Alpine, Conoco has continued its move to the west with new wells in npr-a. America’s Bureau of Land Management (blm) is on the verge of deciding whether to allow it to exploit by far the richest of the prospects it has found there, called Willow. At 180,000 barrels a day, it would increase the state’s crude-oil output by more than a third. The deadline for comments on the proposal was August 29th.
More projects may follow, both in npr-a and elsewhere in Alaska, due to new discoveries and the new Inflation Reduction Act, which accelerates oil leasing on federal lands as well as boosting green energy. Mike Dunleavy, the state’s governor, is delighted by the prospect. “People outside the state like to claim Alaska is some nirvana that needs to be saved,” he says. But, as he points out, demand for oil continues to rise. He portrays new developments as a matter of urgency.
But so, too, is limiting the effects of climate change—effects Alaska feels more keenly than most. Recent research shows that the Arctic’s pace of warming over the past 50 years has been nearly four times the global rate. Coastal erosion has forced some native villages to begin the arduous work of relocation. Greenhouse-gas emissions from the thawed-out soil and the retreat of summer sea-ice from the northern coast accelerate the warming driven by fossil-fuel use well beyond the state’s borders.
If, from a small tent in an awesome expanse, Alaska looks like a window to the past, it is also a preview of what is to come. Fights over where and how much to drill are set to intensify around the world as demand for oil persists and concerns about energy security climb. At the same time the impacts of climate change are becoming ever more evident as the rest of the world follows Alaska into the thawed-out and fiery greenhouse future. Nowhere more clearly shows the forces that will sustain the oil economy, or the cost of failing to give it up.
Anchorage, alaska’s biggest city, is the 137th largest metropolitan area in the United States, and in some ways not that unlike Peoria, Illinois, the 138th. Mid-size office buildings sit in a modest grid. There are nail salons and hunting shops. Busy suburban intersections boast pharmacies of ecclesiastical scale.
But Peoria contains less than 4% of the population of Illinois, while Anchorage contains more than half the population of Alaska, a state more than ten times larger. In total just 733,000 residents—less than 10% of the population of greater Chicago—occupy a state more than twice the size of Texas and larger than France, Germany and Spain combined. It is this vastness, and the extremes and riches to be found within it, which set Alaska apart from any other state.
In Anchorage the climate is at the cool end of temperate. Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), the northernmost town in America, frequently reports temperatures of -25°C (-13°F); its midwinter night lasts for two months. Many villages and some towns—even the state capital, Juneau—are not accessible by road. Huge swathes of land feel as they might have done before the settlers came. Its beauties range from the exquisite to the gobsmacking. After rain on the tundra, the leaves of a young lupine flower cradle a single sphere of water at their centre. When a clear day allows the huge bulk of the continent’s highest peak to be seen from Anchorage, 160km away, locals say “Denali is out” in the way people elsewhere speak of the Sun.
The machismo of the adventurer remains. Bush pilots court passengers with the slogan, “Trust us with your life, not your daughter or wife.” Scientists offered your correspondent both clear-headed analysis and way-out-there advice: how to mend your lip if you accidentally slash it with your ice axe (Krazy-Glue); how to deal with the wolves surrounding you and your recently killed caribou when you are hunting on skis in the Brooks Range at -20°C (leave the carcass, lest you become one). For scientists and others, including many of the native Alaskans who comprise a fifth of the population, hunting and fishing are the stuff not of sport, but everyday provisioning. The extremities of the land are to be managed, revered, enjoyed, endured or cursed—but they cannot be ignored.
THE FRESHNESS, THE FREEDOM, THE FARNESS
This vast land has also been a setting in which America’s national impulse to bend nature to its use has clashed relentlessly with its urge to protect it. In 1954, 87 years after Alaska was bought from Russia and five years before it became a state, America’s Army Corps of Engineers proposed a 1.5km-long dam across the Yukon river. This Rampart dam would have created a reservoir ten times the volume of that which the Aswan Dam, begun the same year, would impound in Lake Nasser. It would have had a surface area the size of Lake Erie, or nearly as large as Belgium.
Not to be outdone by the drawers of water, the high-priests of fire had designs on the land as well. In 1958 the scientists and functionaries of the Atomic Energy Commission’s “Project Plowshare” suggested detonating a series of nuclear bombs on the shore of the Chukchi Sea in order to create a new harbour.
These schemes were seen at the time as ambitious but practical ways to generate growth in a huge state with a tiny economy. That today they come across as the fever dreams of a despot (or perhaps a billionaire tech bro) shows how much thinking about the environment has changed in two generations. And the opposition to those affronts mounted by conservationists, native Alaskans, scientists, hunters and others was one of the things which set that change in motion.
Even early on, the protection the environmentalists achieved was suitably Alaskan in scale. In 1960 activists including Olaus and Mardy Murie and Celia Hunter succeeded, by means of a federal order, in having 36,000 square kilometres (8.9m acres) in the north-east of the state designated as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. It was an area the size of the Death Valley, Yellowstone, Everglades and Grand Canyon national parks combined.
The protection of Alaska was far from the beginning of America’s love for wilderness. But it helped provide the ideas of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and other forebears with a new theatre, and new impetus. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, codifying the notion of wilderness as a portal in time linking Americans now and in future to the past. Mardy Murie was one of those present to hear the president talk of wilderness as providing “a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning.”
The Rampart dam would have created a reservoir ten times the volume of Lake Nasser…with an area nearly as large as Belgium
Then, in December 1967, six months after the Department of the Interior killed off the Rampart dam for good, a flare of natural gas suddenly lit up the winter darkness on Alaska’s coastal plain; an exploratory drilling rig had made contact with the hydrocarbons of Prudhoe Bay.
Geologists had long thought there might be crude in the North Slope rocks; President Warren Harding had established Alaska’s Naval Petroleum Reserve, the predecessor to npr-a, in 1923, as an emergency supply of oil for the navy, despite the area’s actual supplies being unknown. But decades of exploration and wildcatting had seen little success and by 1967 oil companies’ appetite for investment in the state was all but exhausted. Prudhoe Bay changed that. In 1968 its recoverable reserves were estimated at up to 10bn barrels. It was, the New York Times reported, “the richest treasure trove in American history.”
Hardly, though, the most accessible. Sea ice made it impossible to get the oil to market by tanker. Transporting it to the ice-free port of Valdez on the southern coast would require a 1,300km pipeline over harsh landscape. It would also require bridging a range of legal obstacles. The Trans Alaska Pipeline System (taps) was the first big oil project forced to balance the interests of oil and the perceived interests of the nation with those of native people and the environment.
The need to address the claims of native Alaskans led to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, of 1971. It ordered the blm to transfer more than 180,000 square kilometres to Alaska natives, about 11% of the state’s total land, and paid them nearly $1bn for lands not given. Title to native lands went to regional and village corporations charged with advancing the prosperity of their native shareholders. Along the North Slope, in particular, the interests of the most powerful native organisations were now aligned with those of the oil sector.
Environmentalists stood at right angles to that alignment. In 1970 the initial environmental-impact report filed for taps—just eight pages long—had immediately been challenged in the courts and the challenges had kept coming. But the Arab oil embargo in the autumn of 1973 sealed their fate. By November Richard Nixon had signed an act exempting the pipeline from further environmental review. America’s most ambitious engineering project since the Moon landings was completed four years later at a cost of $7.8bn (about $38bn today).
The oil boom filled Alaska’s coffers to bursting; to this day it has no income tax or sales tax. Prudently, in 1976 the state legislature had created a sovereign wealth fund, the “permanent fund”. It both pays every Alaskan an annual dividend and makes investments to assure the state an income after the oil runs out.
The first premonition that the oil might run out sooner rather than later was when a vastly expensive exploration well off the coast came up dry. Hopes of another field to rival Prudhoe Bay foundered. By 1988, with taps handling 2.1m barrels of oil a day, production had peaked. Many Alaskans, and Republicans in Washington, dc, sought to improve the outlook by opening new land to exploration—specifically, some of the land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, created as the successor to the Arctic National Wildlife Range when, in 1980, sweeping federal legislation saw 28% of Alaska’s lands protected.
In 1989 a Senate committee took the first steps to authorising such exploration. A week later the Exxon Valdez, a tanker, ran aground not far from the port for which it was named, pouring more than 250,000 barrels of crude into waters home to seals, otters and orca. The ensuing outrage pushed drilling in the refuge back off the table. But its enthusiasts never lost the faith. They saw the flow through taps dwindle year by year—in 2021 the average was 477,798 barrels a day, with the oil heated lest its cold, slowed flow see solidifying wax cling to the pipeline’s inner walls—and fulminated.
The refuge was a symbol of all sorts of environmental rules seen as constraining America’s economic and geopolitical clout. Those who opposed drilling there were ill-informed meddlers, rain clouds searching for a parade. Though she did not originate it, it was no accident that the imperative “Drill, baby, drill” became indelibly associated with Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, former Republican vice-presidential nominee and, as of a special election on August 16th, defeated candidate for Alaska’s single House seat.
And drill Ms Palin’s babies have, much to environmentalist chagrin. But they have done so in the lower 48, where fracking and associated technologies have made it possible to draw far more oil from the ground than seemed possible in the 1970s. When, in 2017, a Republican-led Congress at last authorised oil leasing in the refuge, Kara Moriarty, the boss of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, framed the relevant pages of the bill, signed by Lisa Murkowski, the state’s senior senator, and hung them in her office. But when the blm subsequently auctioned leases in the refuge in 2021, no big oil companies bid. In the 1970s, Alaska’s importance was that the oilfields in the lower 48 were all past their peak; only Alaska could offer new supply. Now fracking, which makes adding production quick and cheap, has provided the energy security that hard-to-work Alaska never in the end delivered.
IT BECKONS AND BECKONS
In August the last oil firm with an interest in the refuge, a tiny company called Knik Arm Services, gave up its lease. bp, a supermajor, has sold its holdings in Prudhoe Bay to Hilcorp, a private company that an analysis of greenhouse emissions by the Clean Air Task Force and Ceres, two non-profits, ranks as America’s dirtiest. Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay’s main air hub, is strewn with pipe and rigs. Some will be transported to drill sites in winter, when ice roads can bear their weight. But it is hard to escape the impression that a giant toddler has lost interest in its playthings.
Nevertheless, Alaskan oil still has its hopes. Hilcorp is boosting production from bp’s old wells. Ms Moriarty has guarded against increases in oil taxes, educating legislators on the importance of attracting investment. “A lobbyist ain’t nothin’ but a good teacher,” she says, quoting the advice of an early mentor. And there are Conoco’s new discoveries in npr-a.
Oil prospecting has changed a lot since the first gushers of Prudhoe Bay. Truck-bound plates send seismic waves deep below the tundra, sensors gather their echoes, powerful computers interpret their data. Drill bits zig and zag as they sniff around beneath the surface, guided by sensors detecting fault lines. New technology which lowers the work’s environmental footprint also lowers production costs. Last year Conoco told investors that it could make a profit at Willow with oil in the mid $30s per barrel. In addition to the 600m barrels which it has found at Willow itself, the company pointed with optimism to some 3bn additional barrels of oil and gas nearby, equivalent to about one-sixth of the proved reserves of the Permian basin in west Texas and New Mexico.
To the oil industry and the many Alaskans who depend on its revenue, developing Willow is sensible and necessary, a rational strategy to deliver a product the world wants. Through another lens, it is an exercise in elaborate denial.
About 50km north of the Arctic Circle, on the edge of the Chukchi Sea, sits Kotzebue (pop. 3,283). It has an airport, a hotel owned by nana, a native regional corporation, a grocery store and a hospital. It has a playground and beside it a cemetery. In summer it buzzes with the dull roar of all-terrain vehicles as residents enjoy the midnight sun; there is often a child perched between driver and wheel. A bulletin board features notices for Miss Teen Arctic Circle and a food bank funded by ConocoPhillips.
As in many Arctic towns the cadence of life depends on ice. In English ice is qualified by adjectives; thick, thin, blue and so on. In Iñupiat its many instantiations have distinct nouns, each an entity unto itself—sarri (ice pack), sikuliak (ice thick enough to walk on), tuvak (landlocked ice), aunnik (rotten ice), pikaluyik (glacial ice). In June men such as Bobby Schaeffer, an Iñupiat elder, spend much of their time on boats, their prey the bearded seals sunning themselves on ice floes in Kotzebue Sound. Hunters look for kunguk, the brightness on the horizon that suggests the presence of sea ice beyond reflecting light to the clouds.
The patterns of kunguk are changing. “You see it each year,” says Mr Schaeffer, who tracks sea-ice extent not just as a hunter, but as part of a project run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks to record conditions around Kotzebue. According to John Walsh of the International Arctic Research Centre summer sea-ice in the Arctic has shrunk by about 12% a decade since 1979.
The shrinking sea-ice is one of the reasons that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, a phenomenon called Arctic amplification. Less sea-ice means the amount of sunlight reflected back out into space is lower and the amount absorbed and turned into warmth higher. This and other amplifying mechanisms have long been understood, and Arctic amplification is seen clearly in climate models. But the rate at which it is happening is still a surprise. In a study of observational data sets published in August by Communications Earth and Environment, a peer-reviewed journal, Mika Rantanen and colleagues at the Finnish Meteorological Institute argued that Arctic temperatures had risen at roughly four times the global average from 1979 to 2021.
And it feeds on itself. The cranking up of temperatures speeds the further melting of sea-ice, which speeds further warming. Other feedbacks come into play, too. As temperatures rise trees will creep further north; snow hidden beneath forest canopies reflects less sun than snow spread over empty tundra, so more warmth will follow.
Perhaps the most pernicious is the thawing of permafrost. Some 85% of Alaska has permafrost beneath the surface, be it hundreds of metres in depth or a slim slice of frozen soil. In the short term, thawing permafrost transforms common landscapes into surrealist ones. So-called drunken forests have trees tilting wildly this way and that, tipped by slumping soil. Behind Mr Walsh’s office in Fairbanks a once-orderly car park has become an undulating funhouse floor.
But permafrost poses broader challenges, too. There are about 1.6trn metric tonnes of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost; that is twice the amount currently found in the atmosphere. As temperatures rise, the carbon in soil that had been frozen becomes food on which microbes feast. Carbon dioxide and methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas, escape into the air.
This is the new reality of Arctic environmentalism: it can no longer be about keeping the wilderness as it was
“The permafrost in the Arctic that has been a carbon sink for tens of thousands of years may slowly be shifting to a carbon source,” explains Sue Natali of the Woodwell Climate Research Centre, an independent institute. The trouble is, scientists have only a nebulous understanding of how quickly the shift is happening. Ms Natali is leading an effort to measure and model the thaw. Its measurements of the gases released from the soil are breathalyser tests for a planet under the influence.
I’VE BADE ’EM GOODBYE—BUT I CAN’T
If the pace of permafrost thaw is uncertain, the way to limit its ultimate extent is clear: slash emissions. “What’s happening here is America’s wake-up call,” Barack Obama told a crowd packed into Kotzebue’s gym when he visited in 2015. It was the first time a sitting president had come north of the Arctic Circle. “Part of the reason why I wanted to take this trip”, he told Rolling Stone, “was to start making it a little more visceral and to highlight for people that this is not a distant problem that we can keep putting off.” He spoke of the urgency of both investing in clean energy and adapting to the impacts of climate change.
Seven years later, the country is only just starting to act with the urgency he called for. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Joe Biden in August, includes America’s most significant investments in clean energy to date and will have a substantial impact, in the best case reducing America’s emissions by 2030 to about 40% below the levels of 2005. But the law does nothing to curb the use of oil—no carbon tax, no cap and trade. And such are the time lags inherent in climate change that even grand cuts today will not appreciably change outcomes for decades. Green energy will ramp up, oil demand will persist and the world will continue to warm.
Already, climate change has begun to scramble the Arctic’s natural clock. Plants are reaching full growth earlier in the season; that poses challenges to the birds and caribou who migrate over hundreds of miles, only to reach plants and insects past their nutritional peak. But the threat is not just to some magnificent wildernesses, or some abstract idea of the planet. It is to the people who live there.
So far this year some 12,600 square kilometres of Alaska have been enveloped in flames. Early snowmelt made the ground drier and more susceptible to flames. Warming temperatures have made shrubs taller, providing fires with more tinder. As wildfires burn soil, permafrost is exposed to warmer temperatures, which speeds up its thaw, releasing more greenhouse gases.
The once-timeless wilderness still needs protection against the oil industry; but now that industry also needs to protect itself against the downstream impacts its products are having on the weather. Consider Willow. The blm’s newest, court-ordered Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Willow, published last month, spans 2,402 pages. It considers five alternatives, including one with no drilling at all. Conoco’s preferred option includes five drill sites, an air strip, a facility to process crude, 506km of pipeline, 60km of gravel roads, a mine to supply that gravel and seven bridges. To stimulate the flow of oil the company would frack the sediments, blasting sand, water and chemicals into each well at 12-20 access points.
These elements, Conoco says, are designed to minimise the project’s impact. Extra-long drills allow the company to reach more oil from a single wellhead. Infrared cameras will note the location of polar-bear dens so as to avoid crushing them during construction of each winter’s ice roads. Some assurances drift toward the absurd, the chain of cause and effect a Gordian knot. The company would use thermosiphons, standard practice in Alaska, to keep the ground cool “in areas where permafrost degradation would be likely due to local conditions or project facilities.” The gravel roads will be bulked up so as to protect the underlying permafrost from the pressure and heat provided by heavy trucks, and thus to protect the road from the effects of thawed permafrost.
As for the project’s own contribution to climate change, the statement notes that the government “has not set specific thresholds for ghg [greenhouse gas] emissions and while a single project of this size cannot significantly impact global ghg emissions, all projects may cumulatively have a significant impact on global climate change”—the global tragedy of collective action, distilled in the prose of the bureaucrat.
Willow, like every new project in Alaska, has its critics. “Our life, health and safety should not be the cost of oil and gas development and national energy needs,” says Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, former mayor of Nuiqsut (pop. 433), a village close to Alpine. She fears the development will change the migration patterns of the caribou on which her community depends. Peter Winsor of the Alaska Wilderness League, who guided your correspondent on her visit to the wilds of npr-a, argues that drilling’s risks are not confined to climate change; there was a gas leak at Alpine this year. “These ecosystems and the people who live there are already under such pressure,” he protests.
That points to the new reality of Arctic environmentalism: it can no longer be about keeping the wilderness as it was. The caribou are already changing their paths in response to changing seasons; the permafrost is already melting. The environmentalists know all this; they know the past will go whatever they do in the present. But Mr Winsor argues that this makes conservation ever more crucial. Minimising all new assaults gives the fragile Arctic its best chance of adjusting to the change it cannot avoid.
But the drive for development is strong. ConocoPhillips spent $5.9m on lobbying in the first half of the year, more than in any 12-month period since 2011. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a native conglomerate with $3.9bn in revenue, is firmly in favour of Willow; its boss, Rex Rock, calls the project “critical to the economic well-being of our region’s eight Iñupiat villages”. Ms Murkowski points to $10bn in tax revenue, 2,000 jobs in construction and another 300 over Willow’s lifetime. A final blm decision is expected by the end of the year.
Those who want to preserve additional swathes of Alaskan nature are elitist hypocrites, Mr Dunleavy maintains. Oil not drilled in Alaska will be drilled elsewhere—perhaps in a country with fewer environmental protections and a more despotic government. “You have to decide where that energy is going to come from and in what form,” he says. “And there’s nothing free.”
Mr Dunleavy is favoured to win his race for re-election this November. Ms Murkowski is hoping her moderate politics and oil-friendly policies will once again secure her place in the Senate, despite her vote to impeach Donald Trump in 2020. Ms Palin will again run against Mary Peltola, who by beating her in August became the state’s first native Alaskan representative. On the coast Kotzebue is bracing for autumn storms—harsher now that the sea ice stands farther from the shore. The caribou have already travelled back across the tundra to winter in the south, a thundering procession along rivers and ridges. Grizzlies are guzzling fish and berries. By late autumn they will hibernate, waiting out the winter as they have always done. Every time they wake, their world is less what it was.
© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com