Oil on Troubled Water

Environmental activists correctly predict problems with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, forecast the Exxon Valdez disaster, and urge politicians to prevent future occurrences; erosion of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway endangers whooping cranes.

| July/August 1989

Saying "I told you so" isn't polite, but maybe being polite doesn't enjoy such a high priority right now.

Nearly 20 years ago, Friends of the Earth published a book titled Cry Crisis! Rehearsal in Alaska by Harvey Manning, a Seattle freelance writer. It was an impassioned plea that the proposed trans-Alaska pipeline be rerouted to follow the Alaska Highway through Canada and, ideally, that the oil be transported by rail rather than by pipe and tanker. The pipeline was delayed by several years as litigation proceeded. In the end, Vice President Spiro Agnew broke a tie vote in the Senate to approve the pipeline and its environmental impact statement and to bar further court challenges.

Cry Crisis! included worried ruminations about all manner of perils the pipeline would pose, both to the tundra and to wildlife (even if it operated as intended) and to all manner of resources if something should go wrong. It predicted pollution of the North Slope, which has occurred. It predicted leaks along the line itself, which also have occurred.

And it predicted catastrophe if there should be a serious mishap at the terminal at Valdez or in Prince William Sound. On March 24, that worst of nightmares came true when the Exxon Valdez ran aground.

Let's go ahead and say it: We told you so. There's not a great deal of satisfaction in that remark. But there is a renewed plea that warnings like these not go unheeded and ignored. People warned that nuclear power plants like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl could malfunction, causing terrible damage. At TMI we may have dodged the proverbial bullet; in the Ukraine and environs they weren't so lucky.

Environmentalists are telling Congress and the administration that exploring for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not worth the risk, which has now been tragically demonstrated at the end of the pipeline that new Arctic petroleum would flow through. They're saying that drilling off both coasts of the United States is likewise too risky, the benefits too small. They're insisting that liquidating nearly all the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest will lead to ecological calamity, including the extinction of the spotted owl and other species.

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