Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The discovery of the giant Prudhoe Bay oil field triggered a debate between environmentalists concerned with Alaska’s fragile ecology and oil companies engaged in providing energy resources to the nation.

Summary of Event

The momentous discovery of the giant Prudhoe Bay oil field on the shore of the Beaufort Sea in March, 1968, focused worldwide attention on Alaska. Subsequent testing and evaluations indicated that the field contained 9.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This accumulation was almost twice the size of the next-largest field in North America, the giant East Texas field. The discovery was the result of the accumulation of geological knowledge about northern Alaska acquired by government geologists during a period of more than sixty years, combined with the exploratory expertise of industry geologists and geophysicists trained in the evaluation of oil- and gas-exploration data. Most Alaskans were elated and optimistic that the anticipated oil revenue would provide a strong economic future for Alaska, but conservationists were alarmed by the havoc that construction, transportation of petroleum, and oil spills could cause to the finely balanced ecology of the Arctic region. Alaska Prudhoe Bay oil field Oil fields;Alaska [kw]Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy (Mar., 1968) [kw]Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy, Alaskan (Mar., 1968) Alaska Prudhoe Bay oil field Oil fields;Alaska [g]North America;Mar., 1968: Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy[09700] [g]United States;Mar., 1968: Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy[09700] [c]Energy;Mar., 1968: Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy[09700] [c]Natural resources;Mar., 1968: Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy[09700] [c]Environmental issues;Mar., 1968: Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy[09700] Miller, Keith Harvey Hickel, Walter J. Train, Russell E. Morton, Rogers Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy Marshall, Robert Leffingwell, Ernest de K.

The history of petroleum development in northern Alaska began in the latter 1800’s, when Eskimo travelers discovered oil seeps along the coast near Cape Simpson, 150 miles northwest of Prudhoe Bay. These deposits remained unknown to the outside world until 1919, when pioneering geologist and explorer Ernest de K. Leffingwell mentioned their presence in his scientific report on the Canning River region, about sixty miles southeast of Prudhoe Bay. Leffingwell had mapped the geology of this area from 1906 to 1914. In 1923, a large area surrounding the Cape Simpson seeps and extending south to the crest of the Brooks Range was withdrawn from oil and gas or mineral leasing to become Naval Petroleum Reserve Naval Petroleum Reserves number 4 (NPR-4), an area that might contain the future oil supplies of the U.S. Navy.

During the 1930’s and the early years of World War II, northern Alaska received little attention. During the war, however, an aggressive program of naval exploration for oil began and continued until 1953. Surface geological mapping, geophysical work, and drilling of a number of exploratory wells on NPR-4 generated much technical data about the area, but only insignificant hydrocarbon accumulations were found. In 1957, the discovery of a 250 million-barrel oil field by Richfield Oil Corporation Richfield Oil Corporation on the Kenai Peninsula proved that Alaska had the potential for producing major quantities of oil and gas. In 1959, oil-industry geological field parties began studying the Arctic Slope, east and south of NPR-4, and seismic exploration began in 1962. This led to oil-industry drilling activity over the next two years.

In 1960, the federal government established the Arctic National Wildlife Range Arctic National Wildlife Range Wildlife sanctuaries (now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), covering the entire eastern end of the Arctic Slope and Brooks Range from the Canning River to the Alaska-Yukon border. As part of its land entitlement under the Alaska Statehood Act Alaska Statehood Act (1958) , the state of Alaska selected more than 1.8 million acres of the Arctic coastal plain bordering the Beaufort Sea between NPR-4 and the wildlife range. The lands thus selected included Prudhoe Bay. In late 1964, the federal government gave Alaska tentative approval for its land selections, and in December, the state held a competitive sale for leases in the Colville River delta area. In July, 1965, a second sale of Arctic Slope leases was held by Alaska, and Richfield Oil (later part of Atlantic-Richfield Oil) and Humble Oil (later Exxon), acting as partners, acquired more than 71,500 acres of land covering the crest of a subsurface geological structure adjacent to Prudhoe Bay.

In 1966, an exploratory well was drilled at Susie, near the Saganavirktok River, to a depth of 13,500 feet, but it was a dry hole. Following this failure, the Prudhoe Bay number 1 well was begun at Prudhoe Bay in April, 1967. Gas was encountered in this well at a depth of 8,202 feet in December, 1967, and on January 16, 1968, oil was discovered 436 feet deeper in the hole. The oil companies and the state of Alaska had their first clear indication of a major oil field below the gas when the Prudhoe Bay number 1 well tested at a flow rate of 1,152 barrels of oil per day in early March, 1968. Subsequent wells in the field tested at 20,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil per day. In April, 1968, it was announced that Prudhoe Bay might have recoverable oil reserves of five to ten billion barrels, which would rate it as one of the largest oil fields in the world. With this announcement, the oil rush to the Arctic Slope began, and Alaska would never be the same again.


After the discovery of economically important reserves of oil along Alaska’s Arctic coast at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Atlantic-Richfield Oil Atlantic-Richfield Oil[Atlantic Richfield Oil] (ARCO) announced its plans to join other interested petroleum companies in bringing the Arctic field into production. Transportation of the petroleum to refineries in the lower forty-eight states, however, loomed as a major problem. The consideration of transport exclusively by tanker was ultimately deemed impractical; the harbors and surrounding areas in northern Alaska are blocked by ice much of the year, and it was economically unfeasible to use huge icebreaking tankers. Therefore, it was proposed that a major pipeline be constructed to carry the oil 798 miles south to the port of Valdez, where tankers could then move the oil farther south.

The planned route would stretch from sea level at Prudhoe Bay to a 4,800-foot pass in the Brooks Range, then span thirty-four major rivers and streams, and finally pass over a 3,500-foot pass through the Alaska Range before descending to Valdez. The oil industry formed a consortium, initially called the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System Trans-Alaska Pipeline System[TransAlaska Pipeline System] (TAPS) and later reorganized as the Alyeska Pipeline Company, to see that the pipeline became a reality. The major impact of the Prudhoe Bay discovery was the proposed Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the issues surrounding it.

The scope of the pipeline construction greatly concerned environmentalists. The Sierra Club and other conservation groups had been urging the formation of a Gates-of-the-Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range, but it appeared that the whole region might be devastated by construction and oil spills. Conservationists called for preservation of the Alaskan wilderness. Since the planned route crossed more than six hundred miles of federal lands, a construction permit from the federal government was necessary, and conservationists applied as much pressure as they could to prevent it.





To the dismay of conservationists, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Walter J. Hickel, who had been serving as the governor of Alaska, as his secretary of the interior in 1969. Hickel was an open advocate of the pipeline and the potential growth it represented to Alaska. In June, 1969, TAPS applied to the U.S. Department of the Interior Department of the Interior, U.S. for a permit to construct the pipeline. Hickel wanted to grant it promptly, but innumerable environmental, technical, and economic questions still needed to be answered. Succumbing to the pressure in April, 1969, Hickel announced the creation of a departmental task force to oversee North Slope oil development, and he designated Russell E. Train, an undersecretary, to head the new organization. A month after the task force was established, President Nixon, under pressure from conservation groups, expanded it to include a conservation-industry ad hoc committee as well as representatives of other government agencies.

In 1970, conservationists were elated by the passage of the national Environmental Protection Act, which stipulated that the environmental impact of all construction and development on federal lands must be determined prior to the secretary of the interior’s granting of a permit. In addition, the 1970 publication of Robert Marshall’s Alaska Wilderness Alaska Wilderness (Marshall) (a reissue of an earlier work by the famed 1930’s preservationist) was cited by conservationists as a voice from the wilderness itself for preserving the ecology and environment of the Arctic Slope.

The possible environmental impacts of the Alaskan pipeline were many and varied. Construction and operation of overland pipelines could disturb the ecological balance of the area, including the water, ground, fish, wildlife, and vegetation. Land committed to the project might cost wildlife habitats or inhibit the migration paths of land animals. Warm oil in an underground pipeline could melt the frozen ground, and the pipeline might be ruptured by subsiding into the resulting mud. Thermal pollution would result from the heat released by the warm oil, and possible oil spills would damage land, streams, and freshwater lakes. Since the pipeline would cross major fault zones, a severe earthquake might rupture the pipeline. Finally, the use of tankers would mean possible marine oil spills and also could adversely affect commercial fishing operations.

On the positive side, constructing the pipeline would create jobs and provide access to major oil reserves. Many Alaskans believed that Alaska’s financial troubles would come to an end. They had visions of schools, hospitals, community centers, roads, pensions for all, and free scholarships and tuition for those who wanted them. Conservationists were quick to point out that without adequate planning and controls, the oil and construction boom would result in haphazard land development, speculation, inflation, and intensified resource exploitation.

Alaskan governor Keith Harvey Miller threw his full support behind the pipeline and gave TAPS authorization to construct a 390-mile haul road from the Yukon River to Prudhoe Bay. TAPS, however, decided to wait for a federal permit. Early in 1971, Rogers Morton was appointed secretary of the interior, and on March 20, 1972, the Department of the Interior released its nine-volume environmental impact statement on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Filled with many details, the volumes addressed the possible environmental degradation but also emphasized the need for Alaskan oil on the U.S. West Coast. Amid much pressure from all sides, Morton announced on May 11, 1972, that it was in the best interest of the United States to grant a construction permit for the pipeline.

The deciding blow came in October, 1973, when the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo Petroleum embargo of 1973 on petroleum shipments to the United States and other countries regarded as enemies. As the energy crisis developed during the winter of 1973, most Americans realized that the era of cheap, plentiful energy had come to an end. Under these circumstances, the environmental issue seemed less critical, and the case of conservationists lost its emotional impact. President Nixon called for a speedy issuance of the permit, and after much political maneuvering, Congress authorized the pipeline as a matter of national priority. Conservationists made futile efforts to hold the project up in the courts after Congress acted, but the judiciary could find no further grounds to sustain a delay. Consequently, Nixon signed the measure into law on November 16, 1973.

The activities initiated by the oil discovery at Prudhoe Bay have made a major impact on Alaska, bringing jobs, money, people, pipelines, processing plants, and port facilities to the state. Oil spills have proven costly, and the larger population has increased pressures on the state’s land, water, fish, and wildlife resources. Alaska has become largely dependent upon oil revenues for its operating and capital budgets, and further oil activity along with the Arctic Slope continues to pit conservationists against oil companies. Alaska Prudhoe Bay oil field Oil fields;Alaska

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haycox, Stephen. Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics, and Environment in Alaska. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2002. History of the human effects on the Alaskan environment and the political and economic ramifications of those effects and the efforts to redress them. Includes a chapter on the oil field at Prudhoe Bay. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, William R. “Fury over the Resources.” In Alaska. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Highly readable account of some of the struggles between conservationists and the petroleum industry over development of the resources of the North Slope. Leans toward the environmental side.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Robert. Alaska Wilderness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. A reissue of Marshall’s 1933 Arctic Village; often cited by forces against the pipeline. Describes Alaska’s natural beauty and conservationist arguments to preserve the Alaskan wilderness from the adverse environmental effects of petroleum exploration and production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montgomery, Carla W. “Environmental Law.” In Environmental Geology. 3d ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, 1992. Describes some of the environmental impacts associated with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mull, Gil. “History of the Arctic Slope Oil Exploration.” In Alaska’s Oil, Gas, and Minerals Industry, edited by Robert A. Henning. Anchorage: Alaska Geographic Society, 1982. Reviews some of the history of oil exploration in northern Alaska, especially the North Slope.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naske, Claus M., and Herman E. Slotnik. “Land Claims and Land Conservation” and “The Oil Boom.” In Alaska: A History of the 49th State. 2d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987. These chapters detail the issues and events surrounding the battle between conservationists and the oil industry after the petroleum discovery at Prudhoe Bay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shumaker, V. D. The Alaska Pipeline. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979. Describes the environmentalists’ fight to prevent construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the need to reduce the nation’s fuel shortage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Truett, Joe C., and Stephen R. Johnson, eds. The Natural History of an Arctic Oil Field: Development and the Biota. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 2000. Ecological and environmental history of the region in which the Alaskan oil field was found. Discusses potential effects of attempts to utilize the oil in that field. Bibliographic references and index.

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Categories: History