Foreword for Jack Roderick's book
By Howard Weaver
14 May 1997
If you're searching for the defining moment in Alaska's relationship with the oil industry, Jack Roderick's careful chronicle offers ample choices for consideration.
Perhaps you think it was one of the "Eureka!" moments that came with discovery at Swanson River in the 1950s; maybe the decisive time came the instant geologists knew their hunches about a massive field at Prudhoe Bay would actually pay off. We could propose the 1969 North Slope lease sale, when the then-unimaginable sum of $900 million vaulted Alaska out of its adolescent poverty once and for all; we could argue for the moment of "oil in" at the wellhead of the trans-Alaska pipeline.
But those events relate mainly to the industry itself. Some of us would argue that to understand how permanently the state is now entwined with Big Oil, a better reference point is the moment the Exxon Valdez fetched up against Bligh Reef and began spilling Prudhoe crude into Prince William Sound. It was that massive oil spill -- and, more tellingly, Alaskans' reaction to it -- that proved Alaska was fundamentally oil country, as surely as Tulsa or Abu Dhabi. Looking back, the spill and its aftermath made it clear that there could be no turning back.
How did Alaska reach that point? Gradually but inexorably -- and you can follow the journey step-by-step through the chapters that follow in "Crude Dreams." Alaskans' attitudes toward the oil industry have evolved markedly over the years outlined in the book, ranging from wide-eyed enthusiasm to wary partnership and back again, but in the end the fortunes of the state have become so dependent on the industry that the marriage seems sure to hold together -- if only "for the sake of the kids."
Before construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, debate about oil development in the state centered almost entirely on environmental concerns. Alaskans worried that the oil line would leak, that it would melt the permafrost, that caribou would be scared away. After substantial reengineering to address those and other concerns, the industry proved that it could build a pipeline that essentially avoided those pitfalls.
Few Alaskans thought to worry in those relatively halcyon days about how oil would reshape the state's sociological landscape. In retrospect -- even considering the spill of the Exxon Valdez -- the effects on people and attitudes in the state have been far greater than any environmental impacts.
To understand why Alaskans in 1997 have come to think of an annual dividend check from oil as a natural birthright, it helps to understand where Alaskans were in 1957. On the threshold of both statehood and bankruptcy, those pioneer Alaskans looked at the oil potential they could almost smell under the muskeg as a bankbook for the future. When the 1980s oil boom pushed crude prices to $30 a barrel and the state had budget surpluses in the billions, Alaskans launched capital projects that seemed designed "to buy themselves a Houston off the shelf." When the state income tax was repealed -- replaced with revenues from Big Oil -- a lot of Alaskans vowed they'd never go back.
As Alaskans came to expect oil to pay for their government, something fundamental about the state's pioneer spirit changed forever. The mystique of the rugged individualist lives on in Iditarod posters and tourist brochures, but there is less of it these days on Fourth Avenue or Front Street.
How that came to be is the story told between the lines in "Crude Dreams." Anybody who cares about where Alaska was and where it's going will want to spend the time to understand it well.
(c) 2000 Howard Weaver