As it happens, oil development in Alaska started out with a rigged deal—
powerful local people allied with oil interests to advance both.
In 2002, ADN was first to tell Alaskans how that worked.
Correcting the fairy tale about how oil development came to the state
The story of how oil first came to Alaska in the 1950s has grown over the years into a kind of pioneer civics lesson -- a triumph of can-do and positive thinking that is often cited as a guide to how Alaskans ought to make future development decisions.
There are several different versions of the events, but the central story goes something like this: a group of visionary Anchorage business leaders, looking for a way to develop their poor but promising territory, are guided by a surplus store clerk who teaches himself geology and stakes out the most promising oil land on the Kenai Peninsula. After paying for their risky claims, the businessmen set out to convince reluctant oil companies to join their partnership in opening up the country.
After repeated discouragements, one enterprising oil company agrees. Richfield signs on with the businessmen and after some disapointing dry holes, brings in the Swanson River well that introduced Alaska to the wonders of oil economics.
The businessmen prospered. Richfield prospered. Alaska prospered.
The thing is, it doesn't seem to have worked that way in real life.
On the front page today we begin a series of articles that show the deal that ushered in the Swanson River field didn't come about as it's usually described. Despite published accounts and repeated personal tellings, the real story of how that deal was put together has remained hidden for more than 30 years.
After more than six months of research and 60 interviews, Daily News reporter Dave Postman has been able to establish an authoritative outline of what happened. A fully developed story may never be possible, because none of the insiders will talk about it in detail; we asked them repeatedly, and sent hand-delivered letters outlining the important questions we needed to cover. But despite their refusal, it's still possible to determine with confidence how the basic deal was done.
It is clear that Richfield Oil Co., and not the Anchorage businessmen, was the moving party. It is clear that the money at risk was mainly Richfield's, not that of the local men. The lease contracts themselves suggest Richfield had advanced them the money, and that their participation was essentially risk free.
Why does that matter now? There are a number of reasons.
Most important is that citizens deserve the plain facts. That honest version just hasn't been available from the stories told by participants or published thus far.
For example, a Daily News story published in 1982, on the 25th Anniversary of discovery, got the facts almost exactly backward.
Another published account, in Heindon Bouton's 1971 book ""The Great Land,'' perpetuated the story that Locke Jacobs, the self-taught clerk, was the Alaska oil mastermind. It said: "A group of local businessmen who took their coffee break together and called themselves the Spit and Argue Club heard about (Jacobs') activities. "What do you know about oil?' one of them asked him. "Nothing, but nobody else does either,' Locke said. The group rounded up $65,000 for him to play with.'' Far more recently, columnist Tony Smith in the Anchorage Times spelled out a similar version of the myth. "No oil company was willing to drill for oil in Cook Inlet in the '50s. Bob Atwood's solution was bold. He and other Alaskans obtained the leases from the federal government, and then went to San Francisco to convince the oil industry to drill,'' he wrote in December, 1989. "It took daring and personal commitment to bring the oil indstry to Alaska.''
But it didn't happen that way, and embroidering the past is a poor way to plan for the future. People make better decisions on the basis of facts than on idealized memories.
The men who worked with Richfield to bring the oil age to Alaska have become the leading citizens of Anchorage; the honest telling of the real story doesn't change that. That oil was a major factor -- maybe the central factor -- in bringing statehood to the state. The oil age it spawned brought wealth that this generation has spent and profited mightily from.
But so long as we keep thinking that oil came to Alaska only after being begged and sweet-talked, we're operating under a dangerous misunderstanding. Knowing that oil's role in Alaska from the inception has been to choose allies and seek its own best interest is an important foundation for determining oil policy in the future.
Alaskans reflecting on their state's relationship with the oil industry after the Exxon Valdez spill ought to know how it really started. Our extensive report this week will help get those facts into the public debate.