A Tumultuous History of Producing in Alaska

Posted: April 26, 2022

In a time when energy independence should be above all else, the Biden administration continues to create policies that make domestic production difficult. Just today, the BLM announced that the amount of land available for offshore oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Northeast National Petroleum Reserve would be reduced. This isn’t the first time drilling in Alaska has proved controversial. This article will explore the history of policies surrounding oil and gas drilling in Alaska, and attempt to argue why drilling here is critical.

The Purchase

The United States formally purchased Alaska from Russia on October 18, 1867. At the time, Russia was exhausted with defending and managing this remote territory and decided it would rather sell the territory to the US than lose it to an enemy like Great Britain. The purchase was finalized for $7.2 million or less than 2 cents per acre. The Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, was the topic of much public discourse as the people of the United States felt the land was barren and worthless. That sentiment was entirely reversed once gold was discovered in Alaska in 1899. The rush was on, and a chapter of mineral resources was opened for the soon-to-be 48th state.

Prospectors Ascending Chilkoot Pass in Seach of Gold
By Cantwell, George G. – Library University Washington; first published in 1900, “The Klondike, a souvenir”

The Oil

Oil was first discovered on the North Coast in the early 1900s, though production was difficult due to the remote location and lack of interest from larger producers. In 1923, President Warren Harding penned the oil-producing area as the “Naval Petroleum Reserve-Alaska” the fourth of several territories that would be set aside for emergency reserves for a navy that was transitioning from coal to oil. Eventually, people began to explore East of the NPRA and found lots of oil in Prudhoe bay around 1968. By 1977 the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was constructed and Alaska was reaping the rewards of this new boom. State budgets from 1980 onward have been funded largely in part by the oil that was being produced within its boundaries, and even the residents benefited from the repeal of income tax. Since then, Alaska has been responsible for lots of American oil and gas production.

The first Alaska oil well (1902)
Photo courtesy University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives.

The Political Tug of War

Before Prudhoe Bay had been well established as an oil and gas town, Eisenhower was looking to preserve plenty of land for future generations. Included in his package was the Artic National Wildlife Range which is most often referred to as ANWR today. Protections for the land became increasingly important as time progressed, and in 1977 things came to a head. Section 1002 of the ANWR was especially productive in terms of oil and gas production, but also identified as essential for local wildlife. The argument stemmed from there: To drill or not to drill? Administrations since then have fought to change permissions afforded to producing companies. The battle between the philosophies of development and conservation was on, and it has not cooled off since.

Some of the most prophetic oil and gas producing areas of Alaska – From the US Geological Survey (2002) Resource Assessment of NPRA

The Biden Administration

While the battle inland rages on, the Biden administration has now taken to the seas. The BLM announced on April 26, 2022 that it would be reducing the amount of land that can be used for offshore drilling off the coast of Alaska’s Northeast National Petroleum Reserve. The 91-page document highlights the fact that the decision was made after more than a decade of research and communication from a wide variety of stakeholders. This comes after the Biden Administration’s decision to suspend all leasing in the ANWR in June of 2021. Nobody was surprised at this action which essentially reversed the Trump administration’s decision to expand operations in the Arctic. Already the state of Alaska’s government has introduced a bill allowing $2 million of state budget money to be used in lawsuits against the Biden administration (a move that has become popular for many oil-producing states). While the presidential administration is worried about conservation, the Alaska government is worried about having the money to function for its people.

The Continuation of Tradition

While the internet’s outrage is growing from both sides, this is a political move Alaska has seen before. Even the Obama administration put a 5-year plan to make drilling in 2 key areas of the Arctic illegal in a last-ditch effort to limit Trump’s influence. Eventually, a Republican administration will push back against the Biden administration, and the cycle will continue. Conservation has been ingrained in America’s recent history, and this is a conflict that will wage on for generations.







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