Can Oil and Wilderness Mix?
By Timothy Egan The New York Times, August 4, 1991,
THE BEST-KEPT SECRET in the oil industry lies under a steel pipe, six inches in diameter, that pokes out of the tundra inside one of the world's last truly wild places. Eight months of the year, the pipe is surrounded by the frozen chop of snow and blue ice that covers the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. A desert, with less than 10 inches of annual precipitation, the flat land bordering the Beaufort Sea holds the imprint of a savage wind for most of the year: snowdrifts contorted and hardened, a landscape like paste from a blender. In the summer, when the sun circles the horizon but never sets, the snow melts, wildflowers rise in the plain and great masses of caribou arrive to give birth to their young, seeking the coastal wind as refuge from swarms of mosquitoes. Driven by biological imperative, the animal herds gorge themselves on grass and flowers, storing fuel for the long migration through the Brooks Range in midsummer. In September, the tundra freezes again, the sea hardens, grizzly bears hibernate in pockets of warmer air near the mountains, daylight is squeezed from the sky. Through the seasons, the pipe remains -- a totem of the great mystery whose resolution may determine the future of American energy policy. The five-foot shank of steel marks an exploratory oil well, called KIC-1, that was drilled by a partnership led by Chevron U.S.A. in 1985 and 1986 at a cost of more than $40 million. The oil companies drilled to a depth of 15,200 feet on land owned by an Eskimo regional corporation in order to peek beneath the permafrost. They may have discovered the largest recoverable oil field in North America, or they may have struck out, reaching only natural gas or water in a reservoir mapped out by geologists. Fewer than 10 people know what was found beneath the pipe, says Tom Cook, a geologist who is Chevron's... [continues]
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