Touring Prudhoe Bay, the epicenter of Alaska's oil boom

President Jamie Williams (left) begins his trip to Alaska's Arctic in the outpost of Deadhorse. To his right are Alaska regional director Nicole Whittington-Evans, ecologist Wendy Loya and the assistant vice president for northwest conservation Bob Ekey. 

Photos: Tim Woody

My first stop in Alaska's north slope is the Prudhoe Bay region, the epicenter of Alaska’s oil boom, and the primary source of the crude oil that goes into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for the 800-mile trip to Valdez, where the crude is loaded onto tankers.

As the new president of The Wilderness Society, I’m visiting Alaska’s Arctic to get a first-hand look at the landscapes we’re working to protect and the role oil drilling has on Alaska’s Arctic and its people.

Along with staff members from our Alaska regional office, I'll see the impacts of oil drilling in Prudhoe Bay first-hand before moving on to visit the magnificent Teshekpuk Lake, and the community of Barrow, whose residents obtain much of their food from the land and the Arctic Ocean. With a series of blogs from the trip, I’ll want to share the experience with you.

What is Prudhoe Bay?

Encompassing more than 213,000 acres of land that is leased from the state of Alaska to a group of oil companies, this is the largest oil field in North America, and the 18th largest ever discovered anywhere in the world.

In addition to the Prudhoe field, there are other producing oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope on lands owned by the state of Alaska.

While Prudhoe Bay has its place, it is not what the entire Arctic should become.

What I Experienced in Prudhoe Bay

We arrived on Alaska’s North Slope by flying into Deadhorse, an isolated community that is little more than an industrial camp full of oil-field equipment and workers. Trucks, pre-fabricated buildings and dusty gravel roads cover the tundra. The odor of fuel fills the air.

Deadhorse is the gateway to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, which for decades have helped supply the energy we all use. All of us use the petroleum products that result from such development, but helping meet our needs has forever changed this landscape. Flying over this area, development extends as far as the eye can see: gravel roads, drilling pads and numerous pipelines that carry crude oil from wells to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. 

"With large amounts of recoverable oil still in the ground, this is where the nation should focus its drilling efforts so that we can protect pristine wildlands."

Our demands for energy have caused irreversible changes here, but with large amounts of recoverable oil still in the ground, this is where the nation should focus its drilling efforts so that we can protect pristine wildlands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Special Areas of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

What’s at Stake

The Wilderness Society is committed to protecting amazing places such as the Arctic Refuge, Teshekpuk Lake and other Special Areas in the Western Arctic Reserve.

Destroying these pristine wildlands and important wildlife habitat with industrial infrastructure and spills of oil and other industrial pollutants simply isn’t acceptable. The oil industry and its allies in Congress are eager to open these federal lands in the Arctic to drilling, so we must continue pressuring the Obama administration to show commitment to conservation in the Arctic.

We need to achieve wilderness status for the coastal plain and other areas of the Arctic Refuge; permanent protections for Special Areas in the Western Arctic Reserve, more commonly known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska; and a comprehensive conservation plan for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the Arctic.

Sacrificing the entire Arctic for just a drop in the bucket of America's energy demands would be short-sighted and tragic.

See also:

7 ugly facts about Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Living among Arctic Caribou at Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake

10 reasons to protect Teshekpuk Lake