I was a spoil sport at the 10th birthday celebration for the trans-Alaska pipeline,
wondering in a column June 21, 1987 whether we hadn’t lost more than we gained.
The next week an oil spill in Cook Inlet would underline my questions,
and a couple of years later the Exxon Valdez would tragically echo them again.
The pipeline pumped away Alaska’s innocence
Ten years ago debate over the environmental integrity of the trans-Alaska
pipeline was thicker than the inky crude being pumped through the line for the
first time. Citizens, lawyers, welders and engineers watched the turbines turn
over and the oil flow, and held their breath.
All Alaska watched, pregnant with anticipation.
There were early warnings of disaster. Pump Station 8 exploded in a greasy
cloud of spilled oil. An attempt at sabotage seemed to demonstrate how easy
purposeful destruction might be.
But protracted litigation had won substantial redesign of the project, and
careful regulation ensured compliance. Despite some stumbles and a few acres
of oil-sprayed tundra, the basic oil spill record of the pipeline has been very
Substantial questions still surround ballast treatment and sludge disposal
systems at the pipeline terminus at Valdez, but for the 48inch centerpiece of
the project itself, the overall verdict must be: well done.
Alaska's physical landscape accommodated the trans-Alaska pipeline without
catastrophe. Can we say the same for our social landscape?
I think not.
While we were arguing 12 or 15 years ago about leak detection systems,
whole new patterns were being woven in the social fabric of Alaska. While we
learned about permafrost dynamics and vertical supports, an unnoticed
revolution was melting the community consensus in our state. For better or
(too often) worse, tides of population growth and easy money were eroding a
social landscape that proved every bit as fragile as the tundra we fought so
hard to protect.
The flattop haircuts and pointy toed boots were not the chief agents of
change. The men they identified were often enough associated with acts of
individual villainy, but by and large they left Alaska along with the giant
construction contracts that ended with ""oil in.'' The ones who stayed are now
Alaskans, and are as likely to enrich as to diminish our Northcountry life.
But the legacy of the petrodollars they mined will neither vanish nor
assimilate. This is not a question of the projects we built, however wasteful.
It is not about the bureaucracy we bought, however unnecessary.
What hurts us, finally, is the attitude we allowed to take root in the
fertile soil of the easy money boom. It is the idea (so foreign to Alaska
tradition!) that the country somehow owes us a painless living.
The opportunity was so seductive and our resistance so very, very weak.
Now we are left with leaders who somehow convince themselves that it is
right to resist any payaswego taxes, to reward oil companies with rich oil
fields with new tax breaks and tell state workers it's okay to expect the same
That's not the old Alaska way. There's not much of the pioneer
self sufficiency we value in these desperate prayers to OPEC. There is none of
our frontier virtue in the finger pointing and whining that marked the last
legislature in Juneau.
I am happy enough to go to hockey games in our bright new sports arena, and
proud of the fact that we managed to create at least a temporary permanent
fund. I'm not sorry that Alaska got a share of Prudhoe's billions for the
But I feel a deep and lingering regret for the loss of innocence those oil
dollars also brought.
So this week, while officials and dignitaries celebrate the pipeline's 10th
birthday with ceremonies to commemorate the first barrel in the line, I'll be
thinking of some other pipeline history, as well.
I'll be remembering camp riots when the steak-and-lobster menus were reduced
to steak-or-lobster. I'll recall the legislative feeding frenzies inspired by
$30 oil. And I'll remember the drunken party and ""oily t-shirt contest'' with
which Valdez greeted that first barrel of pipeline crude and I'll be
wondering whether there was prophecy in all that.