Oil Lines

By Parker Sutton & Katherine Jenkins

The spatial organization of modern Alaska—a complex network comprised of more than 20 federal agencies in the Arctic alone (1)—is plainly rooted in a single event: the 1968 discovery of oil in the sparse northern reaches of Prudhoe Bay. The psycho­spatial transformation that ensued would, in the language of John McPhee, “change, apparently forever, the use and demarcation of Alaskan land.” (2) Nearly forty years later, this projection has even greater resonance.

The icon of this transformation is the Trans-­Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), an infrastructural seam cinching Alaska’s latitudinal shores. The political compromises that permitted its eventual easement laid the foundation for Alaska’s shift from a self-­organizing, self­-sustaining domain to a highly bounded and strictly­ regulated state. This spatial restructuring prompted a reversal in Alaska’s identity and governing ethos, from a territory with immense renewable resources to a state largely defined by a finite one: oil.

The Alaska of 1968 was poised for an imminent transformation. The reason for this is twofold. First, ninety­-five percent of Alaskan land was federally owned at the time. This translates to approximately 630 million square miles or forty percent of all American public lands. (3) Until the discovery at Prudhoe Bay, no non­-native Alaskan had particularly wanted the land: (4) in the years between the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1887, and the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958, less than half of one percent of Alaskan land passed to private hands. (5)

The second contributing factor is the unique spatial demands of oil ­ its extraction, production, and distribution ­in combination with an increasingly global capitalist economy. Capitalism is more than an economic system, it is a “way of organizing nature” (6­) a notion typified by mineral resource extraction, in which geographical space is decisive in controlling not merely production but the mechanisms that prevent overproduction and oversupply. (7)

These underlying spatial premises drove the transformation of America’s last frontier, as it was touted by conservationists. In 1969, after a brief study, oil companies announced plans to build a hot oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. It was the image of the pipeline on a map, “a razor blade slit across the face of the Mona Lisa,” (8) according to one Alaskan, that thrust environmentalists, conservationists, multi­national oil syndicates, state and federal agencies with different land­ use doctrines and ideals of stewardship into contention for Alaskan land.

Two years later, in 1971, the U.S. Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which was designed to satisfy the demands of Native Alaskans, and to a lesser extent conservationists, to streamline pipeline construction. The ANCSA created twelve Native­ owned regional economic development corporations each associated with a specific region of Alaska, effectively fixing the once ­fluid geographic borders of tribal regions and formally engaging them in capitalism for the first time.

As for conservationists, 80 million acres of land was set aside for parks and reserves. These withdrawals were later confirmed by President Jimmy Carter in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Map (ANILCA), carving a role for over 20 federal agencies in the management of Alaskan land resources. In return, the ANCSA made it such that “if the Secretary of the Interior wanted to set aside a pipeline transportation and utility corridor, that neither the state nor Alaska Natives could select lands within it.” (9)

In Alaska, the drawing of internal borders was concurrent with the erosion of national boundaries, signaled by the arrival of multinational oil companies and various international commercial interests. The pipeline itself is operated by Alyeska Group, a consortium presently comprised of five oil companies with a majority stake owned by British Petroleum, who, alone, has operations in almost 80 countries. (10) And given that oil is a fungible global commodity with a benchmark global price, Alaska was immediately thrust into the international marketplace. This is not to overlook that the pipeline itself is made of Japanese steel.

Yet, to many, the most profound border­ alteration was not inscribed in physical maps but cognitive ones: the formal closure of the frontier in American consciousness.The frontier was, and is, as much an idea as a landscape. Those mourning its demise were mourning the loss of what they believed to be the unique human qualities that the frontier instills; the very cultural and political qualities that shape American values, as put forth by Frederick Jackson Turner and his disciples. This sentiment was captured with wistful eloquence by Stewart Brandbourg, the director of the National Wildlife Foundation, who remarked that “in our quest for a higher standard of living... we permit all of the wilderness to be destroyed, we rob ourselves of the experiences and conditioning that have contributed so much to the inner strength of our people and the achievements of our nation.” (11)

Often overlooked in this argument is the frontier’s dual role in the formation of American capitalism. The frontier is an economic construct: a ratio of people to resources. Following this idea, ­ famously introduced by historian Walter Prescott Webb in The Great Frontier, ­ the frontier signaled not merely a life close to nature but an economic opportunity. Unlike Turner before him, Webb stressed the part of technological innovation in wresting a livelihood from frontier landscapes. (12) The TAPS falls within this critical lineage.

Anti­-oil conservationists felt that the frontier lost was lost forever, the forces of capitalism being intractable. Moreover, the argument has frequently been made that there is no “feedback mechanism... that turns environmental destruction into increasing costs for capital itself.” (13) This notion is largely counterfactual: if there was, the logic goes, environmentally costly industries would self­-regulate. For many carbon­-emitting industries, this is true. It is precisely the reason we find ourselves in the position of environmental crisis we are in today.

The TAPS is ever the exception. The first large­ diameter hot ­oil pipeline to traverse environmentally sensitive permafrost terrain, over half of its 800 miles is elevated on vertica support members (VSM), while the remainder of the pipeline is buried. (14) Research Commission in collaboration with the Federal/State Joint Pipeline Office (JPO) estimates that 336 miles of pipeline are susceptible to deterioration due to melting permafrost.

Through this lens, the TAPS territory is a landscape of irony: the oil recovered from and conveyed through Alaska’s fragile terrain is fueling the northward climb of its invisible permafrost boundary and imperiling its petrochemical future. By 2100, a warmer atmosphere is predicted to push the edge of Alaskan permafrost northward over 300 miles, divorcing the specialized designs of the TAPS from its environment.

Looking back, the protective boundaries established through compromises made at the pipeline’s inception—­that is, the formation of National Wildlife Refuges and National Parks­ are increasingly irrelevant. In the classic environmental preservationist view, “the only alternative to human incursion and development is the setting aside of wilderness, an enclosure away from the human footprint.” (15) Warming air transcends any such superficial border; anthropogenic climate change may have the most enduring impact on Alaska’s land - ­ the greatest spatial agency.

Like all instruments of resource extraction, the TAPS will reach its eventual obsolescence, its lifespan bound by the finitude of geologic resources. nowing this, it is critical to consider how the next wave of energy production will impact the space, culture, and landscape of Alaska, and how designers and policy­makers might engage with and improve upon the drawing of borders, seen and unseen, at this scale.


(1) Clement, J. P., J. L. Bengtson, and B. P. Kelly. 2013. "Managing for the future in a rapidly changing Arctic. A report to the President". Interagency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska (D. J. Hayes, Chair), Washington, D.C., p. 5.

(2) McPhee, John. Coming Into the Country. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. p. 245.

(3) Conley, Heather. Arctic Economics in the 21st Century: The Benefits and Costs of Cold. CSIS/Rowman & Littlefield, Washington, D.C., 2013. p. 59.

(4) National Park Service. "Isolated Paradise: An Administrative History of Katmai and Aniakchak National Park Units". Accessed January 2016. http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/katm/adhi/chap3.html.

(5) McPhee, John. Coming Into the Country. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. p. 17­18.

(6) Moore, Jason. "Toward a Singular Metabolism: Epistemic Rifts and Environment­Making in the Capitalist World­Ecology". New Geographies 6: Grounding Metabolism, edited by Daniel Ibañez and Nikos Katskiks. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014. p. 12.

(7) Labban, Mazen. Space, Oil and Capital. London: Routledge, 2008. p. 7.

(8) Coates, Peter A. The Trans­Alaska Pipeline Controversy: Technology, Conservation, and the Frontier. Bethlehem [Pa.]: Lehigh University Press, 1991. p. 304.

(9) Committee on the Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope. "Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities On Alaska's North Slope". Washington: National Academies Press, 2003. p. 134.

(10) "British Petroleum Strategic Report 2014". Accessed January 2016 http://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/investors/bp­strategic­report­2014.pdf

(11) Geron, Harry R. AWR Hearings, Part 2. Fairbanks, Alaska, 1959. p. 397.

(12) Cronon, William. "A place for stories: Nature, History, and Narrative". The Journal of American History, 38, Issue 4. (March 1992). p. 1335.

(13) Foster, John Bellamy and Clark, Brett. "The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction.” Monthly Review: Volume 61, Issue 06 (November), 1999. http://monthlyreview.org/2009/11/01/the­paradox­of­wealth­capitalism­and­ecological­destruction/

(14) United States. Arctic Research Commission. "Climate Change, Permafrost, and Impacts On Civil Infrastructure: U.S. Arctic Research Commission", Permafrost Task Force Report. Arlington, Va.: U.S. Arctic Research Commission, 2003. p. 33.

(15) Standlea, David M. Oil, Globalization, and the War for the Arctic Refuge. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. p. 92.

Katherine Jenkins is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at The Ohio State University. Parker Sutton is a designer at DLANDstudio in Brooklyn, New York. They are cofounders of the design-research collaborative Topologic.