Deadhorse, Alaska — As I stand here looking at what must be the largest selection of porn magazines above the Arctic Circle (and an impressive display by any standards), I can’t help thinking of a line from the 1973 film classic Papillon: “Abandon all hope and masturbate as little as possible.”
In a sense, that should be the motto of Deadhorse. This “town” has one store and no restaurants. Worse, with the exception of some inaccessible Indian and Eskimo villages, the nearest alcohol is on the other side of a vast mountain range hundreds of miles to the south. Indeed, this fact alone may explain why the general store has every conceivable publication for the man who enjoys drinking a beer and wooing a lady, but can’t — because he’s in Deadhorse.
Residents of some humble towns boast of their McDonald’s or Krispy Kreme franchises, or perhaps the fact that Elvis once passed through. Deadhorse chauvinists are quick to brag that this sprawling, gravel-lined lot of airplane hangars, cargo dumps, and corrugated trailers has a ZIP code; once this postal luxury has been mentioned, the frills drop off dramatically. The next-most-impressive thing is the bumper sticker on the pickup truck that splashed mud on my shoes. It reads, “Where the Hell is Deadhorse, Alaska?”
I have come here because if you want to write about oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, you have to come here. Deadhorse is the central spur for oil activity on the North Slope of Alaska, specifically the area known as Prudhoe Bay. I arrived in Deadhorse together with a hundred or so regular commuters from Anchorage, all of them employed one way or another in the search for what was once called — at least in the opening of The Beverly Hillbillies — black gold, or Texas Tea.
They work in the North Slope, an 89,000-square-mile tract of land roughly the size of Minnesota. If Alaska were Don King, the North Slope would be his afro. More specifically they work in the much smaller area around the coastal plain near Prudhoe Bay, the starting point of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the home of the richest oilfields in North America. And within that space, they work on a comparatively tiny archipelago of parking-lot-sized islands of human activity in a boundless ocean of tundra.
Indeed, before you can appreciate what a small presence human beings have up here, you need to understand how mind-bogglingly huge-and devoid of people-Alaska really is. Alaska has a population not much greater than that of the nation’s capital, but you could fit the District of Columbia into it more than 9,000 times. You could squeeze California into it almost four times; New York State, more than eleven times. A former Army Ranger who now works in Prudhoe Bay as a doctor put it to me this way: “We don’t even bother trying to put out Connecticut-sized forest fires up here. Maybe we start to worry when they get to be the size of Virginia.”
Over 60 percent of the official wilderness areas of the U.S. are in Alaska alone (which is one reason native Alaskans resent bureaucrats four time zones away who try to turn their state into a federally protected theme park). Anchorage, on the southern coast, is Alaska’s biggest city, accounting all by itself for more than a third of the state’s population.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is way over on the other side of Alaska, past several mountain ranges. ANWR is 19.6 million acres, about the size of South Carolina. And it’s beautiful. Well, most of it is. But more about that in a moment. On the very northern cusp of ANWR is what is commonly called the coastal plain, a tract of flat tundra largely indistinguishable from other spots along the coast and throughout the region. This comprises about 8 percent of the refuge-but an even smaller fraction of its pretty scenery. Some of this area is already off-limits to oil exploration, permanently. Nonetheless, the U.S. Geological Survey-seconded by industry experts-believes there could be untold billions of barrels of oil in the swath still legally available. The oil industry says it would need to use only 2,000 acres-an area no bigger than Dulles Airport, outside D.C.-to get that oil. This footprint would be 50 times smaller than the Montana ranch owned by Ted Turner, who helps bankroll efforts to keep ANWR off-limits.
Why do affluent Ted Turner types oppose exploration? Well, there’s a simple explanation and a complicated one. The simple one is that it could be bad for the Porcupine River caribou herd, the second smallest of the four major caribou herds that sometimes use the area to calve their young; in turn, a tribe of Indians called the Gwich’in claim this would destroy their way of life because they live off the Porcupine caribou (but nowhere near where the drilling would be). The more complicated explanation is that this is all a convenient and bogus cover for the simple fact that Americans generally-and environmentalists like Turner specifically-are more than a little daft when it comes to ANWR.
‘MAJESTIC’ AND ‘GLORIOUS’?
The most striking thing about this part of the world is how much meaning we impose on it. I don’t even mean simply the ideological baggage of environmentalists or rank capitalists. Human beings impose meaning at the most basic level. Take, for example, something as mundane as the calendar. “Day” and “night” are total abstractions up here. When I arrived in Deadhorse, it was “early morning” according to my watch. But the reality is that the sun has not set into night, nor will it rise into a new day, for weeks.
The sun beats down on the North Slope more or less constantly for another month or two as the Northern Hemisphere eases itself into winter. When winter comes, there is no sunlight whatsoever for 56 straight days, and long after that, the sun is barely a momentary gift of orange and (later) yellow. If you wanted to set your clock ahead for daylight savings, you’d need to turn the big hand to “May.”
In this sense the whole area is really just a Rorschach test for the imagination. There’s little doubt that for much of human history most reasonable people would have considered this spot the definition of the word “godforsaken.” You need not look back, for evidence, to the ancient pilgrims who died on the frozen tundra. You could simply read an old copy of the Washington Post from 14 years ago: “[T]hat part of the [ANWR] is one of the bleakest, most remote places on this continent, and there is hardly any other where drilling would have less impact on the surrounding life.”
Two decades have intervened, and an environmental fatwa has been issued declaring that the word “pristine” is synonymous with “beautiful” or “sacred.” Of course, anyone who has seen a mint-condition AMC Gremlin knows that pristineness and aesthetic appeal have only a coincidental relationship. Even ANWR fetishists concede that in the winter, with its complete darkness and 70-below-zero temperatures-not counting wind chill-this is no paradise.
But then, it’s no paradise in the summertime either. During the winter, the entire coastal plain is covered by a vast tarp of ice; when the sun comes back, the resulting thaw creates, well, lots of puddles. These patches of freestanding water pock the flat tundra for as far as the eye can see; that’s why this barren region is the only place the U.S. government recognizes as both a desert and a wetland. The water in an old tire can breed thousands of mosquitoes; a puddle in a junkyard, millions. ANWR is the Great Kingdom of the Mosquitoes.
In preparation for my trip, I contacted several Prudhoe veterans. They all said the same thing: Beware the mosquitoes. “They’re about the size of blue jays,” one man warned. Another explained how they pluck the lighter roughnecks off the catwalks to devour them more slowly in their vast, hidden mosquito caves.
So when I reach the oil installation called Alpine, I’m prepared. In Anchorage, I’d bought the most powerful bug repellent the store had, containing 95 percent DEET-a shorthand for some monstrous chemical that requires a warning label more appropriate for a rusty drum of anthrax. I sprayed myself all over with the solution-except in the face; the bottle warned that this might send me to the hospital-including my thick long-sleeved shirt and the tucked-in T-shirt underneath.
We take an SUV down the gravel road to the oil wells, a couple of dozen mosquitoes in tow. As we drive up to the wells, a man walking down the road waves at us, and presumably smiles, from behind a mask of tropical mosquito netting, the sort worn by the crews who finished the Panama Canal. Our guide declares, “I’ve got to get one of those.”
Me too, I quickly decide. The mosquitoes are not fast flyers, but if you stand still they swarm around you like senators spotting a TV camera. The DEET works well, where it works. But since the warning label suggested avoiding my face, the buggers go straight for my nose, mouth, and, most distressingly, the air pockets of my safety goggles. While they are not the size of blue jays, I can’t help wondering how so many journalists have scoured the area without mentioning the fact that on a bad day, according to the villagers in nearby Nuisquit, you can’t open your mouth for fear of inhaling the mosquitoes.
All right, it may not be great shakes for people, but this is Eden for the caribou, right? Well, that’s what you might think from reading the purple prose found in, for example, the New York Times. Perhaps because of the politics involved, a seemingly limitless number of journalists from the Lower 48 put on their “nature lover” hats when writing about the spring thaw along the coastal plain. They write about the “majestic” and “glorious” return of the “majestic” and “glorious” caribou herds to their ancestral and, yes, “majestic” and “glorious” calving grounds. From these dispatches it’s a wonder teenage girls ever bothered with unicorn posters when they could have pinned serene Arctic caribou to their bedroom walls.
The roughnecks in Prudhoe Bay have a saying: “Life begins at forty.” This is not a self-help mantra, but a statement of fact. Once the temperature rises above 40 degrees, torrents of insects — the mosquitoes among the least nettlesome — emerge to dash through the winged portion of their life cycle before the winter returns. Perhaps because they are in such a hurry, they don’t take much time to be kind to the caribou; the swarms can kill calves and even adults.
Consider the warble fly, a vicious bumblebee-like insect that is so mean it can cause a whole herd to go berserk, stomping the ground in a panic and eventually stampeding; not even wolf packs can make them do that. The warble fly lays its eggs on the caribou’s leg hairs. When the larvae hatch, they march like Germans through Paris — which is to say, unopposed — through the caribou’s flesh to its back, where they feed off its skin and fat from the end of summer until the following spring. Starting in late May, the creatures burst out of the caribou’s skin and fall to the ground. A biologist’s text asserts: “Every caribou hide I’ve ever examined has had anywhere from 20-350 warbles along its back.”
And then there’s the nostril fly, or nosebot, which reproduces by harassing the caribou’s ample nostrils. In the process of trying to rid themselves of these agonizing pests, the animals lick at their muzzles or press their snouts into the soil, which delights the nosebots because it pushes the larvae into the caribou’s nose. The grubs hatch in the nostrils and inch their way back to the base of the throat, where they feed and grow into a larval mass so large that the caribou’s breathing can become difficult. The following spring, the caribou do get to sneeze the fly larvae onto the ground — but the expelled critters only hatch and start the process all over again.
And all the while, the caribou are hunted by the omnipresent mosquitoes as well as bears, wolves, various native tribes on three-wheelers or in boats, and (of course) the occasional mukluk-wearing well-to-do orthodontist from New Rochelle who fancies himself a big-game hunter. The caribou essentially race to the coastal plain in a cloven-hoofed Arctic death march in pursuit of cooler pastures and, perhaps-if they are lucky-someplace with the tiniest breeze to spare them from the pestilence.
One such place happens to be Prudhoe Bay itself; specifically, the areas around the oil installations and pipelines, where the Central Arctic caribou herd has thrived in the shadow of extensive oil extraction. Since drilling started here, the herd has increased fivefold. The caribou throng to the roads and gravel pads because the breeze is slightly stronger, and hence a bit more free of the bugs. They hide in the shade under the pipeline on the warm days, and plenty of people will tell you they cozy up to it for warmth in the winter. At least for the Central Arctic herd, the oil facilities are less a disruption and more like the equivalent of the man-made reefs we make from old tankers, for sea life, off the Louisiana coast.
THE M*A*S*H UNIT OF OIL DRILLING
At the terminal in Deadhorse, we boarded a beat-up old yellow school bus that serves as the shuttle to planes bound for the “remote” areas on the North Slope. The formidable female bus driver announced to her regular roughneck passengers, “Boy! The grizzlies are really on the prowl this morning.”
As I was to learn from dozens of roughnecks and others, grizzly bears, like caribou, aren’t frightened by oil exploration. They consider Deadhorse the Paris or New York of the North Slope; they come in to see the sights, perhaps grab a little dinner, even to catch a show. Everyone has a bear story: The owner of an air-charter service recounts to me how she came out of her office one day to find three bears sitting, expectantly, atop her car, as if she were late for the car pool.
There wasn’t much to look at on the flight to Alpine. Once you get over the fact that you are literally on top of the world, in an exotic locale relatively few people will ever see, you come to the sobering realization that the landscape below makes the tall grassy marshes surrounding New York’s JFK Airport look like the wilderness outside Winnie the Pooh’s house. Most of the regulars didn’t even look up from their newspapers to peer out the window. I comforted myself with the fact that ANWR would be much better looking.
Opponents of drilling are absolutely right: Oil exploration isn’t pretty. The Alpine site looks like a few gravel parking lots connected by a gravel road. There’s industrial piping piled up and corrugated trailers and loading paddocks everywhere. The whole place looks like the floor of one of those giant construction pits before they put up a skyscraper in downtown New York. But what the opponents are reluctant to acknowledge is that the place is tiny: The entire Alpine installation, including living quarters for up to 700 people, covers less than 100 acres (97, to be exact). Those 100 acres represent two-tenths of 1 percent of the 40,000-acre oilfield. The drilling that once would have required perhaps a dozen wells, spread out across the tundra, now requires only one.
This is the miracle of directional drilling, a relatively new technology that environmentalist ideologues are loath to admit even exists, because it runs completely counter to the earth-gouging stereotypes of yesteryear. Directional drilling makes it possible to drill in virtually any direction for miles. Indeed, the drilling can go down hundreds of feet, then sideways, then upwards again, like a fishhook. Don’t think of an oil well as a straw, but as an octopus, with tentacles stretching out in all directions. If the Washington Monument were an absurdly tall directional oil well, it could extract oil from underneath the Bethesda suburbs, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Capitol dome — without waking up a sleeping Bethesda baby, rattling an Arlington headstone, or knocking Tom DeLay’s bullwhip from the wall.
Today, crews aren’t allowed on the tundra. “If I took a leak out there, I’d get fired,” an engineer tells me. “In the winter, if you spill some coffee into the snow, you’d better go get a shovel and dig it up.”
One of the reasons there is so little environmental impact is that these are the M*A*S*H units of oil exploration: The entire operation is on wheels. Pretty much everything in Alpine doubles as a cosmic-sized Tonka truck. In order to avoid roadwork on the precious tundra, the oil companies build immense ice roads that can bear massive stresses, but still melt harmlessly during the summer. Divided into 15 modules weighing over 15,000 tons, almost the entire Alpine installation was driven, literally, over the Arctic Ocean, and across miles of tundra — without leaving so much as a pothole.
During my tour, the “company man” — that’s really what they call them — walks us around the well and through the huge machinery that processes the oil and washes the gravel thrown off by the drilling. I expected the oil workers to feel more than a little put out by all of the environmental hoops they are forced to jump through. But I can’t find anyone to say so. In fact, everyone brags about how they run a “zero discharge” facility. “What comes on the slope, comes off the slope,” is a mantra. Alongside the runway are huge piles of garbage slated to be flown back to civilization.
Regardless, the media coverage of North Slope oil extraction is a constant source of exasperation to the engineers and roughnecks. For example, the biggest topic of conversation during my stay here is a recent issue of Field & Stream that asserted that bored Prudhoe workers were shooting endangered animals for fun in their off hours. It is the source of constant eye-rolling, jokes, and sighs among the allegedly bored and dangerous workers.
“I knew a guy who got fired for throwing a rock at a fox,” the former ranger tells me, with great exasperation. He wasn’t throwing rocks for sport, mind you; apparently almost all of the Arctic foxes are rabid. If you get bitten by a rabid fox with inactive rabies, you get those infamous shots. If you get bitten by a fox with active rabies, the company pays for your funeral. “Every single fox head I’ve sent to Anchorage for testing has come up positive,” he explains. I make a mental note to thank God that I don’t have a job that requires the harvesting of rabid fox heads.
THE IDEA OF PARADISE
The day after my tour of Alpine, my pilot, Kermit Carns, and I fly out towards ANWR. To my left is the Arctic Ocean, a vast jumble of icy, slow-thawing jigsaw-puzzle pieces sitting on a table of dark water. To my right, another ocean, this one of green tundra with thousands of islands of water dotting the landscape: miles upon miles of tundra and puddles. We do see a couple of thousand caribou hugging the frigid beaches of the Arctic Ocean, where the cold and the wind protect them from the insects. The caribou look very bored, lounging along the shore, but I assume they are relieved.
When Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition stumbled upon the Grand Canyon in 1540, it did not occur to him or his party that it was a thing of beauty. Rather, it was a huge hole in the ground, and an even bigger hassle. Over the next three centuries, the Spanish and countless others encountered the natural wonder and considered it little more than a big obstacle. It wasn’t until the 1870s that non-indigenous North Americans looked upon the Canyon as “beautiful.”
So if it took hundreds of years for Americans to recognize that a giant gash in the ground was actually a marvel, perhaps I can be forgiven for failing to see the beauty in the coastal plain — if that beauty is actually there. But I suspect that the majority of Americans who oppose oil exploration in ANWR would agree with me if they saw it firsthand. Indeed, they would probably agree that if America had to be struck by an asteroid, this would be the ideal impact point. Of course, I am not talking about ANWR’s beautiful mountain vistas, the ones cooed over by cable-news hostesses. Not only is that stuff legally protected from oil exploration, it is far, far away from anywhere the oil companies want to drill — i.e., the thousands of football fields’ worth of bog and marsh.
Moreover, the Inupiat Eskimos who actually live on the coastal plain are not Rousseauian noble savages living the life Ted Kaczynski wanted us to live. They are very poor people living in ramshackle housing, and they overwhelmingly support oil development on the coastal plain-because they will get a cut. Environmentalists don’t mention these indigenous people because they muddle the story line. They do, however, mention the Gwich’in people very frequently. The “capital” of the Gwich’in nation is Arctic Village (pop. 150), which just happens to be hundreds of miles away from the coastal plain on the other side of the Brooks mountain range. The Gwich’in are regularly trotted out at congressional hearings in Washington, wearing native garb they only occasionally put on back home. The Gwich’in insist that even looking for oil on the coastal plain — with non-intrusive seismic imaging — would be unacceptable.
We are constantly told that the Gwich’in, with their premodern attachment to nature, put a human face on the fight against “corporate greed.” But before you write your check to “Save the Gwich’in” (use an Internet search engine, and you’ll see how easy that is), you might be interested to know that the Gwich’in invited those same evil oil companies to look for oil on their own lands more than a decade ago. Indeed, ask an Inupiat Eskimo why the Gwich’in are blocking exploration and he won’t tell you about the Gwich’in’s rejection of postindustrial bourgeois consumerism; he’ll tell you the Gwich’in are furious because they don’t have any oil of their own, and playing the noble savage for guilty liberals is the most lucrative revenge available.
But the fact is, none of that matters. The only thing that matters to the Robert Redfords of the world is the idea — yes, the idea — that this place is “pristine.” The appeal of ANWR to the average environmentalist is an entirely psychological one. If 0.0000001 percent of the Americans who fervently oppose exploration in ANWR ever actually visited this remote corner of the world over the course of a decade, it would constitute a tourism stampede. The fact is, environmentalists simply savor the idea that there is something untouched by grubby humanity out there. Indeed, if the oil companies could extract the oil in secret and keep this dream alive, everybody would be happy-including, probably, caribou.
This, of course, exposes the true place ANWR holds in the worldview of its voluptuaries: It’s a religious icon, the Dome of the Rock of environmentalism. Indeed, among environmentalists, religious adjectives crowd out all others. ANWR’s coastal plain is “holy,” “sacred,” “divine,” and “hallowed,” not merely by the Gwich’in (who don’t actually live there), but by the journalists and activists who just like knowing it’s there. Drilling is therefore not just “greedy,” but also sacrilegious. It would not matter, environmentalists insist, if there were a trillion barrels of oil safely extractable with a corkscrew and a turkey baster. To them, drilling isn’t bad policy; it’s blasphemy.
Because passions so completely trump reason on this issue, ANWR becomes ripe as a wedge issue for opportunistic Democrats. For example, Sen. Joseph Lieberman says ANWR exploration “would cause irreversible damage to one of God’s most awesome creations.” This is irresponsible absurdity. Not only would the damage, in fact, be reversible; this area simply cannot hold a candle to God’s most awesome creations. The Post (and the New York Times) had it right in the 1980s, when they supported exploration — with far more intrusive technology than today’s — in this truly remote, bleak, and nigh-upon-inaccessible redoubt on the top of the world.
Of course, the activists cannot admit this, so they compare ANWR to places most people have actually been or plan on going to: Yosemite, the Everglades, and even the entirely man-made Central Park. This sort of distortion is rampant. “The simple fact is, drilling is inherently incompatible with wilderness,” former president Jimmy Carter wrote in the New York Times. “The roar alone — of road-building, trucks, drilling, and generators — would pollute the wild music of the Arctic and be as out of place there as it would be in the heart of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.” Never mind that all of that harmless noise pollution would occur in pitch darkness, drowned out by a 120-degree-below-zero wind chill. Even Jimmy Carter should know that music is like trees falling in the forest: It’s only music if there’s somebody there to hear it.