History of Arctic Oil Drilling in the U.S.

History of Arctic Oil Drilling in the U.S.

History of Arctic Oil Drilling

Prior to drilling, Native Americans and Europeans settlers collected crude oil from holes in the ground and used it for various domestic purposes. Colonel Edwin Drake discovered that larger quantities could be obtained by drilling when he established the first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in the mid-nineteenth century. The search for oil then spread to other states and the richest reserves were found in Texas.

The conservation movement has its roots in the nineteenth century. In 1872, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and nature lovers convinced President Ulysses S. Grant to designate Yellowstone as the country's first national park. The U.S. National Park Service was established in 1916 to oversee additional parks, forests, seashores, and preserves.

In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Range in northeastern Alaska as a means to preserve the area's wildlife, native peoples, and outdoor recreation. In 1980, this area was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and doubled in acreage from 9 to 18 million acres. Under terms set by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the range was declared off-limits for the production of oil and gas. However, Prudhoe Bay, located west of the ANWR, was not included in the act and in 1968, Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and Humble Oil and Refining Company, now ExxonMobil, discovered significant oil reserves there.

By this time, the United States had lost its position as the leading producer of oil, which it held during the 1950s after the discovery of major oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. Domestic supplies could not keep up with the country's growing needs, so the U.S. forged alliances with Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Middle Eastern countries beginning in the 1960s. The discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay promised reduced reliance on oil from the Middle East, an issue that gained more relevance after the 1973 - 1974 oil embargo.

Before construction on an oil-funneling pipeline could begin in the 1970s, the petroleum industry had to contend with lawsuits from Native American groups and environmental organizations, who argued that construction of the pipeline, roads, power plants, sewage treatment plants, and other necessary infrastructure would harm wildlife and the tundra.

The petroleum industry prevailed and in 1974, construction commenced on the first portion of the 800-mile long Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The project took 2 years to complete, employed over 20,000 workers, and cost $8 billion. In 1988, production peaked at 2.1 million barrels a day, but had steadily decreased to 750,000 barrels a day by 2006.

According to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, about 500 oil spills occur annually along the length of the pipeline and in Prudhoe Bay. In 1978, vandals blew up part of the pipeline, resulting in 670,000 barrels of oil spilling out over the land. In 2001, someone fired a rifle at the pipeline, which caused 300,000 gallons to leak out. In 2006, a corroded portion of the pipeline resulted in a leak of 270,000 gallons of oil.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The oil killed 1,000 sea otters, tens of thousands of birds, and cost over $2 billion to clean up.

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