Potentially largest oil spill in Alaska North Slope history | WWF

Potentially largest oil spill in Alaska North Slope history

Posted on 08 March 2006    
Caribou walking alongside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
Caribou walking alongside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
© Stan Shebs
Source: Defenders of Wildlife

On March 2, a BP oil operator discovered signs of an oil spill at a caribou migration site on the snow-covered tundra of Alaska’s North Slope.


Three days later, response workers finally uncovered the source of the spill – a breach in an oil transit pipeline feeding into the larger trans-Alaska oil pipeline infrastructure stretching some 800 miles across the state.

Clean-up crews have already vacuumed up more than 190,000 litres of crude oil and melted snow off the delicate tundra but at least one report from an industry expert indicates that this spill could be the largest crude oil spill in the history of North Slope – second in Alaska only to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Oil is still dripping from the breached pipeline and the full extent of the damage and affected area are unknown. The multi-agency spill response team will attempt to come up with an estimated spill volume in the next two days.

This accident is just one in a long history of substantial spills seen on Alaska’s fragile North Slope since development began there. The area is adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and contains the largest oil fields in the US. It is covered by an extensive system of roads, pipelines, refineries and landfills.

Despite industry hype about the safety of development and new technology, the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and Trans-Alaska Pipeline have caused an average of 504 spills annually on the North Slope since 1996, according to the Alaska’s own Department of Environmental Conservation.  Past spills have included:

  • 1,136,000 litre crude oil spill from the Trans-Alaska pipeline that was detected as far as 267 kilometres away;
  • 416,400 litre crude oil spill caused by a bulldozer which created a geyser that spewed oil over 8 hectares of tundra wetlands;
  • 1,079,000 litres of crude oil that spilled into the boreal forest after a local hunter shot the pipeline with a high powered rifle;
  • 2,555,000 litres that were leaked after a saboteur exploded a two inch hole in the pipeline just a few miles north of Fairbanks.

Last week during the US Senate Energy Committee’s hearing on the Fiscal Year 2007 Budget, Chairman Domenici praised Secretary Norton and the Department of Interior for promoting "environmentally-gentle" oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Bush Administration has once again inserted potential revenues from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the budget bill. Previous attempts to open the Refuge to oil drilling using this “back-door” tactic have been defeated and US Senate Democrats are already opposing this latest attempt.

As crews of up to 70 people work 12-hour shifts around the clock to clean up after this massive oil spill, we are sadly reminded that there is no such thing as "environmentally gentle" oil drilling.
Caribou walking alongside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
Caribou walking alongside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
© Stan Shebs Enlarge

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