There’s No Escaping Oil, Even in the Wild Arctic

An oil pipeline bisects a snowy forest in Alaska.

Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is once again the center of controversy. The Trump administration is currently preparing to open portions of the 19-million-acre refuge to oil and gas drilling despite the fact that Americans as a whole oppose this move by a wide margin. Why does this space, so remote from the lives of most Americans, generate such extensive concern?

A panoramic view of the arctic national wildlife refuge

Alaska has captivated the American imagination as a place of wild, untouched nature. Here, the Sheenjek River winds its way through the ANWR. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2019.

U.S. perceptions of Alaska have long been shaped by the promotional rhetoric of tourism. We have been trained to imagine Alaska as a wilderness paradise: a land of mountains, bears, and aurora borealis. A visit to the state’s official vacation and travel information website produces all the imagery that one would expect, with Governor Michael Dunleavy describing “an extraordinarily beautiful place, with unforgettable scenery, magnificent wildlife…glorious mountains, rivers and glaciers.”

Alaska is marketed as the ideal escape from the pernicious effects of modern life, a place where one can “get away from it all” through a return to unmarred nature. Americans who cannot afford to vacation in Alaska are no less beguiled by fantasies of “the last frontier.” The plethora of reality television shows and nature documentaries set in the state attests to its broad appeal in the popular imagination. “I may never in my life get to Alaska,” wilderness advocate Edward Abbey once wrote, “but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”

In order to formulate modes of thinking that do not reduce Alaska to an abstraction, we need to stop thinking like tourists.

In recent years, however, as the effects of climate change have become increasingly apparent, Alaska’s ability to provide this sense of hope has grown tenuous. As the Fourth National Climate Change Assessment notes, “Alaska is on the front lines of climate change and is among the fastest warming regions on Earth. It is warming faster than any other state, and it faces a myriad of issues associated with a changing climate.”

In light of these environmental transformations, some have dubbed Alaska the United States’ “Climate Change Frontier.” Historian Roxanne Willis has even suggested that this identity “may soon replace” Alaska’s “primary cultural designation as the ‘Last Great Wilderness.’ After all,” writes Willis, “the idea of wilderness is one of unchanging nature, and no one can deny that the natural environment in Alaska is changing—and quickly.” Clearly, we need to adjust our thinking about Alaska.

An aerial view of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the wing of the airplane in view

An aerial view of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Recreation, scientific exploration, and resource extraction in the Arctic are all fueled by petroleum productions, including the plane that made this photo possible. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2019.

We might begin by reframing our perceptions of the state in terms made popular by scholars in the field of energy humanities. Alaska’s place in our environmental imagination takes on new dimensions when understood in relation to what Stephanie LeMenager has termed petromodernity. Throughout her book Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century, LeMenager explores how virtually every aspect of modern life is shaped by oil. Not only are the material substances which we encounter on a daily basis produced by and from petroleum; LeMenager analyses how even our feelings, fantasies, and expressions of identity are predicated on oil and oil-based technologies. As a result, we are more invested in petroleum infrastructures than we can perhaps comprehend. Yet there are moments, LeMenager suggests, which reveal the depth of our commitment to petromodernity. She cites Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill as events which exposed a “competition between” our “emotional investments” in oil, on one hand, and ecology on the other.

A cruise ship near Lamplugh Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. A feature of petromodernity is that the ways one experiences wild places are themselves made possible by oil extraction. Photo by Matt Zimmerman, 2015.

The image of Alaska as the last frontier works to conceal a similar competition of emotional investments. By reducing Alaska to an abstraction, this image has enabled Americans to envision the state as simultaneously a sacred space to be protected and a land to be exploited for its resources. As historian Peter Coates has demonstrated, this dual vision was reproduced throughout the twentieth century, as both environmental preservationists and advocates of Alaskan development leveraged the myth of the last frontier in order to advance their competing agendas. As Alaska’s topography succumbs to the effects of climate change, highlighting the unsustainability of this fantasy, it is crucial that we do not redeploy images of the last frontier which contain the seed of the problem. But as the current ANWR drilling controversy illustrates, old habits die hard.

Though the last four decades have seen dozens of bills introduced in the House and Senate that would authorize oil drilling in the ANWR, all attempts to open the refuge to development have ended in failure. However, 2017 saw a major victory for those eager to exploit the oil deposits beneath the refuge. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law on December 22, 2017, contains provisions which open the ANWR to oil and gas drilling and require the Department of the Interior to implement an oil and gas leasing program that will complete two lease sales of at least 400,000 acres within the next seven years.

a person equipped with a respirator works to clean the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

In 1989, wild Alaska collided with the state’s petroleum industry when the Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil near the coast. Here, a person equipped with a respirator works to clean the spill. Photo courtesy of ARLIS Reference, 1989.

Since the passage of the act, the Trump administration has been criticized for rushing to get the leasing program off the ground ahead of the 2020 presidential election. On December 20, 2018, the Department of the Interior released a draft environmental impact statement, which drew criticism from drilling opponents on both sides of the aisle. In addition to the disapproval voiced by Democrats, scientists, and environmentalists, seven Republican Congressmen sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, expressing their concerns that the Bureau of Land Management’s “expedited process” will “put the Arctic Refuge—the crown jewel of our National Wildlife Refuge System—in a vulnerable position to be exploited and destroyed.” As “one of the most pristine places left in America today,” they argue, the ANWR constitutes a “fragile, critically important landscape,” which “[a]ny development footprint…stands to disrupt.” Like much of the discourse surrounding the controversy, this letter recycles wilderness rhetoric as a means of protesting the development of the ANWR.

On the surface, this conflict may appear to be a simple contest between those who wish to preserve the environment and those who wish to exploit it. However, the situation becomes more complex when we recognize our wilderness fantasies of Alaska are a product of petromodernity rather than a form of resistance to it. Though we may cherish the romantic image of a pristine, pre-modern landscape, we gain access to this image only through characteristically modern—and petroleum reliant—media: airports, cruise ships, television screens, etc. It is this ambivalence which structures the American fixation with Alaska and the dual vision it entails. When we understand that to indulge in wilderness fantasies of Alaska is to indulge in a component of petromodernity itself, we are forced to confront the fact that images of the last frontier actually obscure the material realities of Alaska.

In order to formulate modes of thinking that do not reduce Alaska to an abstraction, we need to stop thinking like tourists. Alaska can provide us with no hope of escape from the modern world. However, it can provide us with a good starting point from which to rethink our fantasies of nature and our ways of living in the world.

Featured image: An oil pipeline in Alaska. Some claim that Alaska’s petroleum industry provides one-third of the state’s jobs. Photo by Malcolm Manners, 2014.

Ryan Charlton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Mississippi. His research explores how imagined geographies have shaped U.S. discourses of nation, region, race, and gender. He is currently completing a dissertation examining representations of the Arctic that emerged in the wake of the 1867 U.S. purchase of Alaska. Contact. Twitter.