Continuing a three decade old argument over drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the US Senate appears likely to make another important vote on the subject in the next 48 hours, according to US Senator John Kerry.

This issue is of interest to Cascadians because Alaska is the main source of Oregon and Washington’s oil. (British Columbia runs on Albertan oil; Idaho and western Montana burn fuel from Billings, Montana.) Drilling proponents argue on the grounds of national security, but Alaskan oil is actually far less secure than you might assume. In fact, although it is drilled from American soil, it arrives in the continental United States the same way as oil from the Middle East: by ship.

  • And the means by which it reaches those ships is insecure: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a piece of infrastructure that is profoundly vulnerable to attack. We wrote, in Cascadia Scorecard 2005:

    The Trans-Alaska is 800 miles long, sits elevated above the ground for more than 400 of those miles, and was long ago deemed indefensible by the Pentagon. It is aging and corroding and is near the end of its design life. It has already been sabotaged once, bombed twice, and shot more than 50 times, most recently in 2001 by a drunk with a hunting rifle. In 1999, a disgruntled Canadian ex-convict was apprehended just months before he had planned to blow up three key segments in midwinter, when repair could have taken months. He had begun assembling 14 sophisticated bombs and had pinpointed the pipeline’s weak points. Other near misses are much rumored but classified. The US Department of Homeland Security did reveal in 2004 that its late 2003 “elevated terror alert” was motivated by intelligence suggesting terrorists might attempt to ignite the fuel stockpiles at the pipeline’s Valdez terminus. The opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil extraction, if it happens, would redouble and extend Cascadia’s dependence on this single, insecure pipeline.

    A winter pipeline attack at remote points along its length could halt oil transport from the North Slope until Spring. Some fear that the normally-heated oil might even congeal in the pipe, making the Trans-Alaska the "world’s largest Chapstick." (This point, and some of what’s quoted above, comes from the best in-depth analysis of the ANWR question that I’ve seen: Rocky Mountain Institute’s 2001 article in Foreign Affairs called "Fool’s Gold in Alaska.")

    (Washington Senator Maria Cantwell is leading opposition to drilling in the refuge. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith is among the small set of Republican senators who are bellwethers on the issue.)