Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Extreme Oil
Photo of workers fueling airplane
The Journey The History The Science
BTC Pipeline Alaska Angola Ecuador

Map of Alaska
In This Section
Azerbaijan
Georgia
Turkey
Alaska
Angola
Ecuador
send us your feedback
email this page to a friend
Alaska

Technology and Environment

Perhaps as much as its pipeline, Alaska's oil industry is remembered as the site of one of the most infamous oil spills in history. Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the California-bound oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. The ruptured tanker proceeded to dump 250,000 barrels (almost 11,000,000 gallons) of Prudhoe Bay crude oil -- enough to fill 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools -- into the Sound's waters. Over the following weeks, the oil spread over 1,300 miles of rugged Alaskan coastline, creating one of the most ecologically destructive oil spills in history. Hundreds of thousands of animals were killed by the toxic oil, including sea otters, harbor seals, bald eagles, and various seabirds. Many different fish species were also affected by the spill, and the fishing industry in Prince William Sound was devastated. Exxon claims to have spent over $2 billion during the massive cleanup efforts that followed, but recent studies have indicated that the environmental effects from the spill still linger 15 years after the event.

Photo of mountains and animals
Maintaining Alaska's environment, including wildlife, is a concern to many.
In the era of global oil, big oil companies have a vested interest in protecting their reputation for safety and environmental awareness. To this end, BP and the rest of the Alyeska companies have taken extensive measures to ensure that an oil spill doesn't happen along their pipeline. Nonetheless, on several occasions BP has been forced to conduct extensive public relations damage control relating to its operations in Alaska. In 2000, BP pleaded guilty to one felony count for failing to immediately report the dumping of hazardous materials by one of its contractors at the Endicott field; the guilty plea resulted in a fine of $500,000, five years of probation, and the required implementation of a national environmental compliance system. (At the time, the compliance system had a projected cost of $15 million, and BP reports that it has cost more than $40 million to date.) The company also agreed to a $6.5 million civil penalty. Though BP sought to clean up its act in the wake of the ruling, in 2002 the company was accused of negligence after one of its North Slope wells exploded, seriously injuring a worker. Most recently, in August, 2004 the EPA called for an expanded probe into BP's Alaska operations after the company was accused of mishandling oil spills in Prudhoe Bay, covering up corrosion, and intimidating employees who raised safety concerns.

If BP is found to be in violation of its probation, the oil giant could face further penalties and be forced to conduct yet another expensive campaign to protect its public image. The future of BP's pipeline, however, appears to be somewhat less controversial: in 2004 the Department of the Interior renewed the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline's federal right-of-way leases for another 30 years.

Go to Alaska: Economics
About the Series For Teachers Resources Pledge Sitemap