Alaska- Conflicts and Pressures


The USofA has high demands for oil and a desire to not be dependent on the supply given by other, typically less stable countries.

Oppositions to the exploitation of Alaskan oil were largely based on the fragile tundra ecosystem of the state.

  • Only a few cm of top soil thaw in the summer, so productivity is low in plant life
  • Below the arctic circle, the tundra makes way for taiga forest which has a variety of coniferous tree types
  • Supported by these environments are a wide variety of other species such as caribou, moose, bears, wolves and wolverines.

The US Government’s National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 meant that all companies had to consider the environment and recognise the rights of indigenous peoples.

  • To prevent permafrost melting, oil installations at well-heads are raised on mattresses
  • Dalton Highway (open since 1994) provides a supply route from the South to Prudhoe Bay in the North. It is built 2 m off the tundra surface on a bed of gravel and sand.
  • Workers at oil fields who do 2 week shifts through the year are flown in by Air Alaska from Anchorage (in the South) and lie in Deadhorse in raised, heated cabins
  • The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, carrying oil 1,300 km from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez started being constructed in 1974 and was completed in 1977 at a cost of US$8 x 10^9. 5 pumping stations control oil flow. The pipeline is insulated and for most of its length is raised- both for access and to minimise environmental damage. The pipeline is built with a “zigzag” path to allow space for expansion of the pipeline in summer without the pipe breaking and leaking oil onto the tundra.
  • BP became the sole oil extractor at Prudhoe Bay in 2,000 but had to abandon parts of the oil field in 2009 as 900,000 litres of oil leaked from corroded pipes
  • In 1978 the Government increased areas of conservation in Alaska by 23 million hectare and by another 42 million in 1980

The oil is shipped out from Valdez by companies such as Exxon to refineries elsewhere in the USofA. Valdez is also dependent on commercial fishing.


  • The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 damaged large sections of the coastline
  • Since 2006 some double-hull oil tankers, offering more protection against potential obstacles, have been operating in Alaskan waters.

The area also has a threat of earthquakes and tsunamis due to being on a destructive plate boundary.

Geological activity

On 27th March 1964 an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, epicentre 112 km East of Anchorage occurred resulting in land beside Prince William Sound sinking around 2 m. Tsunami over 30m high have hit Valdez before- Valdez has had to be relocated to a higher, safer site because of this.


Tourism in Alaska is mainly concentrated in June, July and August, and in the South. Many visitors come in cruise ships.

  • Tourists are bused between National Parks to admire wildlife and scenery
  • Many anglers from around the world visit Alaska
  • Many ferries and tourist vehicles also carry rangers who identify wildlife and geographical features


32% of Alaska is covered in forest. There are 4.8 million hectares of commercial forest

  • In 2004, 272 fires were caused by lightning and 424 by people One by Dalton Highway destroyed 195,576 hectares of forest

Ash from fire can release minerals which help plant growth and also leaves areas of the forest floor exposed to sunlight so more plants can grow there.


In 2,000 Alaska had 626,932 residents, and now has 736,732 in 2016.

  • To safeguard subsistence lifestyles, a government act in 1980 gave the rural people priority in hunting and fishing on federal lands. There have been subsequent disputes between rural and urban Alaskans, due to claims of being discriminated against. It is difficult for wardens to enforce this.
  • Alaskan residents have benefited from oil revenue. In 1976 the Alaska Permanent Fund was established. At least 25% of all money earned from minerals goes into this fund. By 1980 oil revenues had allowed Alaska to abolish income taxes. Alaska is now the 4th richest US state.


The Arctic may have up to 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. In 2007, Russia put claims to the Arctic which has created tensions with other Arctic nations and territories, including Denmark (Greenland), Norway and Canada, as well as the USofA


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Exxon Valdez oil spill

Exxon – company involved

Valdez – ship involved

The Valdez departed from the Trans Alaskan Pipeline’s end. On March 24th 1989, it struck Bligh reef.


  • Lack of proper navigation, possibly from alcohol
  • Failure of Exxon to supervise and provide a rested and sufficient crew
  • Failure of coastguard to provide effective vessel traffic systems
  • Captain told a pilot to avoid ice bergs and go back into shipping lanes at a certain point, leading to confusion.

11 million gallons of oil were spilled.


  • More than 35,000 birds killed
  • 1,000 otters found covered in oil (or dead)

Most animals will sink when they die, so only a small proportion have been found. Estimates are that:

  • 250,000 birds died
  • 800 harbour seals died
  • 250 bald eagles died
  • 22 whales died
  • and 1 x10^9 fish eggs were wiped out

59% of tourism businesses received cancellations, Visitors to the area decreased by 39% compared to the previous summer.

The captain was fined US$50,000 and did 1,000 hours of community service.

20 acres are still contaminated; US$580 has been lost on fishing and US$2.8 x 10^9 worth of damage was caused. It took 4 summers of clean-up before they had given up, and some beaches were still oily. The clean up was finally complete in 1992, with a total coast of £2 x10^9 being spent on clean up.

10,000 workers, 1,000 boats, and 100 helicopters and other aircraft were needed for the clean up.Winter storms do more for the clean up than the workers, but mean that the oil is back in the sea. The spill was actually good for hotels as visitors came to help with the cleaning.

Exxon themselves spent US$2.1 x10^9 on clean up operations.

In 1998, the Alaskan SeaLife Centre opened in Seward, funded mostly by money from the Exxon Valdez fine. As well as a visitors’ centre it performs research on cold-water fish, seabirds and marine mammals, and rehabilitates injured marine wildlife.

Niger Delta Oil

Since the 1970s Nigeria has relied on oil to provide 95% of its exports and earning, 40% of the GDP and 80% of government revenue. Despite this it had also caused extensive environmental damage to the Niger Delta environment.

Poverty, Deprivation, social conflict, occupational dislocation and ill health are all identified as being related to thr use of oil.


Families living in oil fields have to breathe in large amounts of methane daily.

Oil is flammable (of course) and 10,000 barrles of oil can be spilt across the Niger Delta in a year.

Gas flares are a visible impact where oil is being extracted.

Dirty water is common in the area and less than 20% of the area is accessible by major roads.

Fishing and traditional livestyles are disrupted by the oil industry.

Pipes burst frequently and are often broken deliberately so pirates can steal the oil.

Forest is destroyed by fires and oil companies.

Money is leaked out of the economy as much of the oil extraction is being performed by TNCs based in other countries.


Nigeria is Africa’s primary oil producer. Nearly all of the country’s oil are offshore or in the Niger Delta.

In 2005, 131 million tons of oil were produced. All but 5 million tons of this were exported. Oil makes up 90% of Nigeria’s exports.

Nigeria has the largest third longest mangrove forest in the world along the Niger Delta. The area supports 150 species of fish. 60% of West Africa’s fish sticks spawn in swamps.

Economic development and the specific impact of the oil and gas industries have caused widespread environmental damage.

Over 4000 oil spills gave been recorded since 1958.

In 2006, the WWF described the Niger Delta as one of the top 5 polluted places. In total, 500 million tons of crude oil have been lost to spillages at a cost of $10 million a day.

Current conflicts in the Niger Delta started in the 1990s because of tensions between foreign oil companied and a number of ethnic minority groups who are being exploited. Unrest has continued since, even with a change in government in 1999. Competition for oil has also spawned violence between ethnic groups and vast militarisation through the area.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

On the 20th April 2010 an oil spill started in the Gulf of Mexico, which was still releasing oil on the 29th of September that year.

This is the largest accidental marine oil spill in US history.

11 people died in the accident; in addition 500 turtles died and 64 dolphins died. 3,000 dead birds were found but there were doubtless more killed. There are no estimates on how many fish died. If the accident had occurred further out, in a less fragile ecosystem, then the impacts would have been less severe environmentally at least.

210 x 10^6 barrels of oil were released.

US$2.5 x 10^9 were lost on fishing with 78,597 square miles not allowed for fishing. Hotels close to the accident saw a big increase in business due to people  arriving to help clean up the spill. A total of US£23 x 10^9 of damage was estimated to have been caused.

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