Alaskans Speak Up About Oil Field Shutdown

Libby Casey, a reporter for KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska, describes the local reaction to BP's shuttering of the oil field in Prudhoe Bay.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For more on the impact of the shutdown at Prudhoe Bay, we're joined by Libby Casey. She's a reporter for member station KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Libby, thanks so much for talking to us.

LIBBY CASEY reporting:

You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, Prudhoe Bay is quite remote. As I understand it, it's a 14-hour drive from where you are in Fairbanks, but you've been working the phones all day long. What does it mean for those three communities that are populated to a large extent by all those people who work in the oilfields?

CASEY: Well, Prudhoe Bay is one of America's northernmost points, above the Artic Circle, in a landscape of tundra. And when we talk about the communities of Prudhoe Bay, they're there just for the industry. The town outside the oilfields, Deadhorse, started because of oil, and you don't live there unless you have something to do with the industry, whether it's repair work or cooking for the workers or running the small amount of tourism that takes the trek north.

Hundreds of people work up on the oilfields and essentially make a many hundred mile, if not thousand-mile commute. They go and live up there for one or two weeks on and work, and then they return back home to their communities. We don't know yet if their jobs will be affected by this. I've talked to some people who work for BP and they're just not saying yet. There will be a lot of work to be done on the slope, though, trying to get everything back up and running and take care of the problems that have caused this shutdown.

NORRIS: So, the workers that are there, they don't know right now if they're going to be heading home or whether they'll be staying there temporarily throughout the shutdown, which could last for weeks or even months.

CASEY: That's right, and there are workers who do things other than just essentially mine the oil. They do repair work. They do all kinds of maintenance. And there are companies other than BP that are up on the North Slope, so their jobs should not be affected.

NORRIS: Has there ever been a shutdown like this before?

CASEY: This is unprecedented. You know, partial shutdowns have occurred when problems have cropped up. For example, back in March, when there was the biggest oil spill in Prudhoe Bay history. It meant a loss of shipments of 95,000 barrels a day. That's less than a quarter of what we're talking about now.

NORRIS: Any early word on this, or did this just come as a complete surprise to these communities?

CASEY: Well, the company says the recent test results that showed what they're calling anomalies in the pipes came as a surprise, but oil industry critics say that it should have been expected. When the pipes were built more than 30 years ago, it wasn't anticipated they would even last this long. And one Alaska industry critic, Richard Fineberg of Fairbanks, says corrosion problems have not been adequately monitored. And just last week, he released a report that warned of possible future leaks.

The leak detection system is of concern, too, to a lot of people. That big spill back in March wasn't noticed by sensors. It took a worker smelling crude oil on the ground before it was noticed.

NORRIS: So, while in the lower part of the United States and the rest of the United States, people might not think about this very often, but it sounds like the issue of the aging infrastructure of this pipeline is something that is talked about and debated quite a bit there in Alaska.

CASEY: Absolutely, especially since the state is so dependent on the oil industry, both because of the jobs it offers and also because of the taxes that the state gets. The governor of Alaska has said that this shutdown will cost the state $6.4 million a day and has called it a precarious situation.

NORRIS: So even with the elevation in oil prices, that won't necessarily make up for the loss of this oilfield, the lost revenue from this oilfield.

CASEY: Right now, the state is running about $200 million ahead of budget, so there is essentially a two-month buffer. But legislators had anticipated using that money to rebuild state projects after years of budget cuts. You know, the recent high oil prices have been tough on Alaskans' pocketbooks because, of course, just like everyone else, we have to drive and heat homes. But it's been a real boon to the state.

NORRIS: Libby Casey, thanks so much.

CASEY: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Libby Casey is a reporter for member station KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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