Mar. 9, 2006 – A disastrous crude-oil spill on Alaskaâ€™s North Slope over the weekend has environmental groups renewing calls to stop the expansion of oil exploitation in the state.
The spill was first noticed last Thursday by an employee of British Petroleum. Workers did not find the source of the spill until early Sunday morning, but the amount released into the Alaskan wilderness is unknown. Estimates are expected from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) today.
So far, clean-up crews working around the clock have collected over 58,000 gallons of spilled oil and oil-tainted water, according to ADEC. The agency also reported that the leak started at a caribou crossing and that the affected area is about two acres of tundra hundreds of miles north of Anchorage and includes the edge a frozen-over lake.
BP operates the site where the leak spouted, a station at Prudhoe Bay on Alaskaâ€™s North Slope that pumps oil from the surrounding area into the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which carries the toxic fossil fuel across about 800 miles of the state.
BPâ€™s Prudhoe Bay operations have a leaky history. In 2003, the Anchorage Daily News reported on a leak discovered by BP workers that had possibly gone undetected for months, expelling around 6,000 gallons of oil and oily water into the environment. In June 2002, ADEC had fined BP $150,000 for failing to install a leak-detection system on its crude oil transmission pipelines in the Prudhoe Bay area, according to news reports from that time. In 2001, BP spilled thousands of gallons of oil into a freshwater lake. But according to the Anchorage Daily News, ADEC said that leak may have continued for days before detection by workers.
In response to the latest spill, the environmental advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife said the rupture shows the devastation drilling in wildlife areas can cause. They said the spill illustrates that improved technologies for drilling do nothing to prevent pipeline ruptures down the line.
In recent years, supporters of expanding drilling in the Alaskan wilderness have said "environmentally gentle" extraction and transportation technologies make oil drilling less invasive. According to the pro-drilling association Arctic Power, better drills, new well spacing and ice roads have minimal impact on the environment around a drill site.
The concept of so-called gentle drilling is key to provisions under congressional consideration that would permit oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.
Tuesday, three of the nationâ€™s largest environmental groups expressly refuted the concept, calling the spill "an unfortunate reminder of just how â€˜gentleâ€™ oil drilling operations could be if allowed on the Arctic Refugeâ€™s coastal plain."
The groups maintain that lawmakers and others supportive of expanding domestic oil production are disingenuous when they say oil can be taken from the Alaskan wilderness without greatly disrupting the plant and animal life there.
According to the National Academies, the North Slopes wildlife has been disturbed by oil drilling. In a report released almost three years ago, researchers with the scientific institution found that whales altered their coastal travel routes to avoid areas where drilling occurs, land mammals have changed their mating and travel habits, and rising populations of scavenging animals threaten fragile bird species.
According to data gathered from ADEC and presented by the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation, more than 500 spills happen on the North Slope annually. Last weekâ€™s is the largest to occur there in decades, the Associated Press reported yesterday.