Fly me to the moon: Prudhoe Bay from above

Deadhorse, Alaska

Deadhorse, Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The place where polar bears butt heads with the petroleum industry – literally. “If a bear’s spotted, work’s usually called off for the day,” a man in Barrow, 200 miles to the west, told me. Oil workers try to scare away the bear – sometimes a polar bear, sometimes a grizzly – and condition it so that it doesn’t come back in search of food.


On my recent trip to Alaska, I didn’t have the chance to stop in bear-battled Prudhoe or nearby Deadhorse, which houses the airport, lodging, and store for the oil workers. Deadhorse is also the end of the Dalton Highway, which starts north of Fairbanks some 400-odd miles to the south. I did, however, get to fly in and out of Prudhoe Bay airport, which in winter appears to miraculously emerge out of the white tundra.

Anchorage-Alaska-Airlines

Ascending out of Anchorage over the Talkeetna Mountains.

Flying from Anchorage, our airplane soared over the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range. I dozed off soon after the snow-capped peaks transitioned into the relatively flat white plains of the Yukon-Tanana Uplands. When I woke up an hour later, the packed Alaska Airlines flight was descending into Deadhorse, laden with cargo for the winter construction season. The seats that would normally take up the front half of the airplane are replaced with a cargo hold on the airline’s 737-400 Combi planes. Winter is the big construction season in Prudhoe Bay because it’s the only time of year when the ground is solid and snow-covered. This permits driving on the tundra without permanently damaging it.

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Sitting on the tarmac of the moon. Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport. Photo: Mia Bennett

I looked at the view from my window seat and felt like we were descending onto another planet. It was a clear day and the sun bounced off the spindly network of chrome-colored pipes that criss-cross the North Slope. Straight, unwavering pipelines cut across meandering frozen rivers. All of the infrastructure out here is built on manmade gravel pads, for nothing can sit directly on top of the shifting permafrost, which thaws and refreezes every year. In this part of the world, gravel is almost more valuable than oil. The tiny rocks we take for granted down south are in short supply up north. No construction or excavation can happen without gravel.

Prudhoe-Bay-Frozen-Rivers

Straight pipelines intersect with meandering rivers in Prudhoe Bay in winter. Photo: Mia Bennett

The gray gravel pads are all but invisible in winter, however, and instead, the hundreds of miles of pipelines seem to stretch magically across the landscape. It is beautiful in its own way. Human ingenuity (or idiocy, depending on your point of view) has transformed an area that was once primarily used for local subsistence by the Inupiat people into a export-oriented resource frontier by dredging up the ancient seabed underlying the North Slope.

Prudhoe Bay is North America’s largest oil field. The extent of this industrial moonscape blew me away. It measures some 213,543 acres, or approximately 15 by 40 miles. That’s more than double the size of New York City and still significantly larger than Los Angeles. We flew over the oil field for a good long while before the platforms and pipelines faded into the west. Out here in mid-winter, it was impossible to tell where the tundra turned into the ocean, for both were frozen solid.

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Taking off again from Prudhoe Bay airport, headed east towards Barrow.

“In space we read time,” reflects German historian Karl Schlögel. Above Prudhoe Bay, I felt as if I was witnessing modernity in all its silver-plated excesses. The sight was all the more jarring having come from Anchorage, where I had wandered down the old main street and read about the bustling heydey of a past boom centered around the construction of the Alaska Railway. Faded murals and maps of the “Last Frontier” were the chief reminders of this wealthy era in the city’s history. Up in Prudhoe, what will this extreme edge of the rush for Alaska’s resources look like when the oil runs dry? Abandoned pipelines and platforms might then no longer epitomize a future-forward modernity, but rather a rusty past.

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The main drag in Anchorage, where curio shops have replaced saloons and even a Japanese restaurant that bustled during the construction of the Alaska Railway.

Trump’s budget could cause infrastructure crisis for rural and Native Alaskans

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Under Trump’s budget, air service to many rural communities in Alaska may be eliminated. Photo: Deadhorse Airport (which will certainly remain economically viable, as it is next to Prudhoe Bay), Mia Bennett, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump released his proposed budget today, and the reaction has been swift and scathing. Rural communities, healthcare, the environment, science, and climate change research all face enormous cuts. Trump may have run a campaign on behalf of the common man. But given that the president spends half of his time running the government from the palatial Mar-a-Lago, it’s painfully obvious that he cares little about the fates of some of the nation’s most vulnerable people and places.

Rural America, much of which ironically voted for Trump, will have to contend with deep funding cuts if his budget is approved. As a state with one of the highest proportions of rural residents, Alaska would be particularly negatively impacted. Some 34% of Alaskans live outside the state’s cities. Alaska’s rural populations, too, are different than those in the Lower 48. While much of rural America voted for Trump, counties with large Alaska Native populations tended to vote for Clinton. (The same is true of rural, largely Native American counties in the Lower 48). Between 2008 and 2012, rural Alaska actually had some of the largest shifts in voting: many counties that had opted in 2008 for the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, voted in 2012 for Barack Obama. This may reflect the fact that an Alaskan, Sarah Palin, was no longer on the ticket.

Yet it may also suggest that rural Alaska Natives believe that a Democratic president may do more for them than a Republican. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Trump taking a tour of Alaska to witness climate change first-hand and visit Alaska Native settlements. Obama’s visit to Kotzebue made him the first sitting president to visit the American Arctic. In contrast, Trump proposes to eliminate the very agency that Obama tapped to lead the process of of climate change mitigation in coastal communities in Alaska, including determining which ones should be relocated. Unsurprisingly, then, in 2016, rural Alaska again tended to vote Democratic.

Alaska-2016-Election-Results

Rural Alaska to Trump: “Not my president?” 2016 Presidential election results for Alaska at the state house district level. Source: Ali Zifan/Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

If Trump’s budget is approved, Alaska Native villages could face an infrastructure crisis. During the campaign, Trump talked big about planning to ask Congress for a trillion dollar infrastructure bill. But maybe he had in mind a few big-ticket projects like pipelines and ports, for his budget proposes to make deep cuts in federal funding to vitally important small-scale infrastructure that supports rural livelihoods in Alaska.Trump wants to pay for a “big, beautiful, wall” to ostensibly keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. He doesn’t want to pay for shore walls in Alaska that would keep out a rising sea.

Here’s a rundown of how Trump’s budget would jeopardize infrastructure and well-being in rural Alaska.

  • Scraps programs like the Essential Air Service, which provides $21 million a year to guarantee air service to 61 communities in Alaska that otherwise would be viable in a market situation, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which reduces the cost of heating for people with extremely high bills in places like frigid Alaska. People living in communities in the Lower 48 that lose air service due to the elimination of EAS may just have to drive longer distances, but that isn’t an option in Alaska. As the state’s sole representative to Congress, Don King (R), remarked last year, “That’s what serves my community…I don’t have highways. I don’t have streets. I’ve got air.”
  • Eliminates the Economic Development Administration, which the budget considers a “duplicative administration” even though it is the only federal agency exclusively focused on economic development. The EDA assists with regional development in places like Alaska, Appalachia, the Deep South, and New England.In 2013, EDA invested $838,155 in 12 projects in the State of Alaska. According to its website, its “investments help Alaska communities achieve bottom-up, locally-defined economic development goals and strategies.” Of the funds in 2013, nearly half ($370,000) went to six American Indian/Alaska Native economic development planning organizations in the state.

    The EDA has invested in Alaska Native communities since its establishment in 1965. The village of Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island halfway between Alaska and Russia, received $11,500 in the 1960s for its restoration. In the below photo from the EDA, the native Yupik people prepare an umiak (walrus-skin boat) in Gambell.

    Gambell, Prince, Alaska.

    Villagers making an umiak in 1967 Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Photo: Economic Development Administration.

    One example of a more recent program that the EDA has funded in Alaska is a $700,000 investment in workforce development in rural Alaska, granted in May 2014. The grant went to the  Association of Village County Presidents in Bethel to purchase equipment used to train workers in mechanical disciplines, including aviation maintenance. This is a crucial skill in a region where many rely on small planes for transportation between remote villages. This program and many other similar ones once funded by the EDA may now no longer be possible.

  • Eliminates infrastructure assistance to Alaska Native Villages provided through the Environmental Protection Agency. This is one of the over 50 EPA programs the budget would cut due to being categorized as “lower priority and poorly performing programs.” Through its Alaska Native Villages and Rural Communities Water Grant Program, the EPA has provided over half a billion dollars in grants since 1995 to assist with clean water provisioning. At least 3,300 homes in rural Alaska, mostly in the western portion of the state, lack running water or flush toilets.
  • Cuts the budget for the Hazardous Substance Superfund Account by $330 million. There are eight active Superfund and Superfund-equivalent sites in Alaska including severely contaminated mine and military sites. Local and state governments would be expected to fill in the funding gap – but given Alaska’s nearly $3 billion budget deficit, this seems unlikely.
  • Overall, appears to cut research to climate change by 20%. Alaska is warming twice as fast as the Lower 48, making climate change research even more urgent. Even as climate change opens new opportunities for Arctic development, it threatens many coastal communities. Some of them, like Kivalina and Shishmaref, may even have to relocate inland to avoid rising sea levels, eroding shorelines, and more severe storm surges, as this report by the Army Corps of Engineers explains. The budget would cut funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, by $250 million. Specific programs targeted include coastal and marine management, which could unduly affect Alaska since its 6,640 miles of coastline are longer than the coastlines of all other states combined.

    Trump’s budget argues that coastal and marine management takes “lower priority than core functions maintained in the Budget such as surveys, charting, and fisheries management.” But successful fisheries are dependent on well-managed coasts. A study involving NOAA found, for instance, that ocean acidification puts Alaska fisheries and communities at high risk, particularly in the southeast and southwest where many depend on the sea for their livelihoods. According to a NOAA report, in Alaska in 2012, the seafood industry provided 55,890 jobs and accounted for over a billion dollars in landings revenue – a third of the nation’s total and nearly triple the next highest state, Massachusetts. If Trump thinks that this lucrative industry can be maintained without research into coastal management and climate change, he is wrong.

    NOAA-Ocean-Acidification-Alaska

    Studies involving NOAA that produce maps such as these, of the economic impacts of ocean acidification on Alaska’s fisheries, may no longer be possible if funding is cut.

  • Eliminates the Denali Commission, which was formed in 1998 by legendary Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R) to help rural Alaska Native communities obtain infrastructure, health care, and job training. The commission has had its ups and downs, including an internal fiasco in which its own leader suggested it should be axed. Yet Obama’s decision to allocate $2 million to the commission to lead a project determining which coastal villages should be relocated gave it a new and important role. The Trump budget may now yank this away.

    Coastal communities in Alaska are counting on the government to step in to help them combat climate change. In 2015, Diane Ramoth, vice chair of the Selawik tribal government council and treasurer of the NANA Regional Corporation, expressed, “This is a very, very dire situation that we’re in if our United States government is going to allow our communities to no longer exist.”

    There is something even more dire than the current administration’s wish to eliminate a commission assisting the 31 coastal communities that may potentially slide into the sea. It is that the president seeks to undercut many of the basic services, programs, and subsidies that make modern life possible in the hundreds of communities across rural Alaska, climate change or no climate change. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government effectively forced Alaska Natives to settle in place. But now, it does not even want to pay to support the infrastructure that people have become locked into. Under Trump, Alaska is no longer the Last Frontier, but rather the Forgotten Frontier.

What’s one big area with regard to Alaska that isn’t being defunded? Support for the oil industry. The President’s 2018 budget plans to “strengthen the Nation’s energy security by increasing funding for Department of Interior programs that support environmentally responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters.” This could possibly pave the way for more drilling in places like the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, America’s largest tract of undisturbed public land.

More drilling may be good news for the Alaskan state budget and all of its residents who receive Permanent Fund Dividends every year. But you can’t do much with money if you have no air service, no clean water, no job training, and no climate resilient infrastructure – except maybe pay for your skyrocketing heating bill, no longer subsidized under Trump.

2016 NPR-A Lease Sale Tract Results Map (12/14/2016). Source: Dept. of Interior/BLM.

2016 NPR-A Lease Sale Tract Results Map (12/14/2016). Source: Dept. of Interior/BLM.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe: The surrealism of Russia’s three new Arctic pipelines

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Russian President Vladimir Putin before giving a speech by teleconference to commemorate the opening of three new Arctic pipelines. Photo: The Kremlin.

On January 18, Russia’s state owned gas company, Gazprom, opened a new pipeline stretching from the frozen Bovanenkovskoye gas field of the Yamal Peninsula in Russian Arctic to Ukhta, a city in the country’s north. The 1,265-kilometer long Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 pipeline runs parallel to an existing pipeline with the same name. Its opening thus doubles capacity to a combined total of 115 billion cubic meters per year.

Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 connects with other Russian pipelines that eventually feed into the Nord Stream pipeline. Opened in 2012, the Gazprom-supported project runs from Russia under the Baltic Sea and terminates in Germany. In other words, Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 can now theoretically double the amount of Arctic gas that flows to Europe every year.

The Yamal Peninsula: strength in imaginary numbers

Gas production facility No. 2 of the Bovanenkovo gas fields in Russia's Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Gazprom.

Gas production facility No. 2 of the Bovanenkovskoye gas field in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Gazprom.

The Yamal Peninsula lies at the heart of two of Russia’s national strategies: first, to breathe new energy into its oil and gas industry by exploiting  the country’s northern resources, and second, to develop the Arctic. Gazprom notes on its website that for the gas production center in Yamal, to where its main resource base is shifting, the company has built “a railroad, which includes the world’s longest bridge beyond the Arctic Circle, and the first airport in Russia’s modern history.”

It should thus come as no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gave a speech by videoconference commemorating the Arctic pipeline’s opening, proclaimed in his first few sentences, “This is not just a pipe” [full transcript in English/Russian]. Visions of Magritte paintings floated in my head when I read those words. Before getting too distracted by pipes, apples, and tophats, however, it’s worth situating Putin’s surreal words within their broader context. He expressed,

We continue developing Russia’s pipeline transportation system. I believe that not only professionals but also people perhaps far from the energy sector are well aware that the facilities we are launching today are not just pipelines, but complicated, large-scale industrial facilities.

Rene Magritte - The Treachery of Images

René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images [La Trahison des Images], 1929. 

Putin underlined the fact that not just one, but actually three pipelines opened on Wednesday. In addition to the main attraction, Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2, the Arctic pipelines Zapolyarye-Purpe and Kuyumba-Taishet were also unveiled. A few sentences later, Putin continued,

Their launch will substantially expand our oil and gas sector’s possibilities and will have tangible benefits for the entire Russian economy. This is indisputable. What is particularly important is that they will contribute to the [Russian Federation’s] regional development as well.

Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller took over next, extolling how his company laid more than 450 kilometers of pipeline “in the harshest climatic and geological conditions of the Far North.” At the same time, he stressed that the pipeline is the “most modern mainline gas pipeline in the world” (oddly, the Kremlin’s English transcript more modestly translates this sentence as “one of the most modern mainline gas pipeline in the world” (emphasis author).

Miller also plainly states that Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 will operate until 2087, a year that is almost farcically precise given how far it is into the future. For all we know, all of the permafrost underlying the pipeline may have turned to mush by then. Climate models suggest that the Yamal Peninsula may be over 6°C warmer by 2090.

IPCC climate projection with Yamal Peninsula highlighted.

IPCC projected surface temperature changes for 2090-2099 as compared to 1980-1999, with the Yamal Peninsula highlighted.

Nikolay Tokarev, President of state-owned Transneft, the world’s largest oil pipeline company, gave the following speech. He lauded the 8,000 specialists and 4,000 pieces of heavy machinery (“We used only Russian-made equipment”) that were involved in the construction of the other two Arctic pipelines. Making sure to mention the social sphere, Tokarev also explained, “…We also took care of social issues. We built 16,000 square meters of housing, created 1,500 new jobs, built 7 bridges, and energy facilities, while budgets at different levels have received around 3 billion in taxes.”

Phew!

The announcements of numbers so large as to be incomprehensible (what, after all, constitutes 16,000 square meters of housing in human terms? Four of this Russian mansion in Rublyovka?) make the pipeline seem like an even more impressive achievement for the Russian state. It was not enough for Russia to simply open a pipeline that will ceaselessly pump Arctic gas to warm the gingerbread houses of Germany and beyond. Instead, the heads of industry and the Russian state itself, Putin, had to herald the magisterial symbolism of pipelines to the Russian nation.

The lines of steel that unify the nation

In nineteenth-century America, the opening of railroads spurred the nation’s people imagine themselves as more physically unified. In twenty-first-century Russia, the opening of pipelines is key to the country’s mastery of the Arctic, picking up a task that the Soviets left off as the twentieth century was drawing to a close. But whereas railroads at least connected communities (along with the wheat fields, cattle ranches, and orange orchards whose products they brought to market) pipelines really only connect resources to terminals. They do little to connect people or strengthen a nation’s social fabric, except when people use them in unexpected ways as has been documented by geographers like Michael Watts and others working in Nigeria. That is why it is even more important for state and business officials like Putin, Miller, and Tokarev to speak of pipelines in sublime and magical terms. If leaders endow pipelines with a certain national mystique, then the people may support them as national “infrastructure objects,” to use Putin’s words. Otherwise, citizens may ask: Where is the benefit for us? (Oh, right, it’s in the 16,000 square meters of housing.)

The Germans smoke the (Arctic) pipe 

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Griefswald, Germany: Where Russia’s Arctic gas touches down upon the European continent. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Nord Stream terminates in the German city of Greifswald. The coastal Baltic metropolis once belonged to the Hanseatic League, which was etched into the deep recesses of my brain during 10th-grade history class. While the trade alliance of the Middle Ages is most well-known for its activities around the Baltic and North Seas, there is some evidence of its involvement in the “early penetration of the North,” according to German scholar Klaus Friedland.

In a fascinating paper, he suggests that an Icelandic family may have lived in the Westphalian city of Lübeck. Using art and poetry rather than historical documents to base his findings, he determines that members of the “Ysland” family used their connections to import 12 hawks every year from Iceland. Falconry was all the rage in Europe at the time, and the North Atlantic nation was seen as having some of the most prized birds. These hawks were sent to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Recently, the media has fawned over how former president Barack Obama managed to read a bevy of books in office (and even publish a paper in Science). But Frederick II wrote an entire treatise on hawking in his spare time, which is believed to have been the longest written work by any European monarch of his time or prior. In De Arte Venandi cum Avibus [The Art of Hunting with Birds], he proclaimed Icelandic birds to be the best birds, sending European hawkers and bird bandwagoners into a tizzy. The 12 hawks imported from Iceland every year were delivered to the emperor as a sort of duty, in return for which they received enough money to feed cereals 100-200 people for a year.

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Hawks – a 13th century Arctic export. From De Arte Venandi cum Avibus

The buck didn’t stop with Frederick II, however. In fact, in the late 1300s, one Lübeck trading company’s bread and butter was transporting Icelandic hawks alive all the way to Alexandria, Egypt via Venice. Much as Queen Elizabeth has her Welsh corgis today, the aristocrats of Alexandria had their hawks.

Hanseatic League members later became involved in other lucrative Arctic commodity trades, like stockfish (cod). Yet today, former Hanseatic league members like Greifswald are turning to the east for northern commodities, namely Russian gas. Und so, while Emperor Frederick II once demanded Arctic commodities in the way of Icelandic hawks, today, Russia’s president is pushing Arctic commodities onto Germany in the form of Russian gas. Coincidentally, Gazprom’s CEO, Alexey Miller, comes from a Russian family of German descent.

Nord Stream II: doubling down the exploitation of Arctic gas

Gazprom is heavily pushing Nord Stream II, a pipeline that would run parallel to the current one. It is highly geopolitically contested, for it could decrease Russia’s dependence on using Eastern European countries as thoroughfares to export its gas to markets in Western Europe. Even without Nord Stream II, Gazprom’s ownership of European gas markets has been rising: it reportedly increased from 31% in 2015 to 34% last year.

In a press release published the other day on Gazprom’s website, Miller expressed,

“The new gas pipeline, Bovanenkovo – Ukhta 2, commissioned today as part of the northern gas transmission corridor, reshapes the geography of gas flows for both domestic supplies and exports. The northern corridor becomes fundamental to gas supplies throughout European Russia and integral to the shortest, most reliable and efficient new route for gas exports to Europe, stretching from Yamal to Germany across the Baltic Sea. It is the Nord Stream 2 project, whose implementation is running on schedule.”

The development of Russia’s Arctic via the exploitation of the Yamal Peninsula is inseparable from the construction of Nord Stream II under the Baltic Sea, thousands of miles away. While the pipelines bring the Arctic closer to Germany, these enormous cylinders of Russian steel cut up the peninsula’s vast reindeer pastures into smaller and smaller parcels. Their construction constricts the mobility of the nomadic indigenous Nenets people, who are already under severe pressure from climate change. As a spokesman for Greenpeace Russia remarked, “Our research shows that the biggest fear nomads have is not global climate change, but the fear of being pushed out of the tundra.”

The pipeline’s impacts on lives and lands at both ends thus prove Putin right: this is not just a pipe.

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Nenets reindeer herders on the Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Wikimedia Commons