Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

The report identifies accumulated environmental, social and economic effects of oil and gas leasing, exploration, and production on Alaska's North Slope. Economic benefits to the region have been accompanied by effects of the roads, infrastructure and activities of oil and gas production on the terrain, plants, animals and peoples of the North Slope. While attempts by the oil industry and regulatory agencies have reduced many of the environmental effects, they have not been eliminated. The report makes recommendations for further environmental research related to environmental effects.

Key Messages

  • Decisions about where, when, and under what conditions industrial activities are permitted on the North Slope are made by many federal, state, municipal, and other agencies. Communication among them has usually been weak and sporadic. Decisions generally have been made on a case-by-case basis, without a comprehensive plan and regulatory strategy that identifies the scope, intensity, direction, and consequences of industrial activities judged appropriate and desirable.
  • Air pollution is a concern to many North Slope residents. Little research has been done to quantify the effects of air pollution on the North Slope or to determine how local and regional air masses interact.
  • Animals have been affected by industrial activities on the North Slope.
  • As a result of conflicts with industrial activity during calving and an interaction of disturbance with the stress of summer insect harassment, reproductive success of Central Arctic Herd female caribou in contact with oil development from 1988 through 2001 was lower than for undisturbed females, contributing to an overall reduction in herd productivity.
  • Because natural recovery in the Arctic is slow, the effects caused by abandoned and unrestored structures are likely to persist for centuries. They could accumulate further as new structures are added in the region.
  • Bowhead whales have been displaced in their fall migration by the noise of seismic exploration. The full extent of that displacement is not yet known.
  • How long damages caused by seismic surveys and other off-road travel will persist is not known, but some effects are known to have persisted for several decade.
  • Human-health effects of oil and gas activities have not been well documented. Although some problems on the North Slope increased use of alcohol and drugs, increased obesity, and other societal ills are evident, it is not possible to say with the limited data available to what degree they are the direct result of oil and gas activities.
  • If recent warming trends continue, their effects will accumulate over the next century to alter the extent and timing of sea ice, affect the distribution and abundance of marine and terrestrial plants and animals, and affect permafrost. Such changes would eventually affect existing oil-field infrastructure and would continue to affect the usefulness of many oil-field technologies and how they affect the environment. Climate change also would affect arctic ecosystems and Native Alaskan cultures as well as the way they are affected by oil and gas activities.
  • Industrial activity on the North Slope has grown from a single operational oil field at Prudhoe Bay to an industrial complex of developed oil fields and their interconnecting roads, pipelines, and power lines that stretches from the Alpine field in the west to Badami in the east. A highway and pipeline cross the state from near the Arctic coast to Valdez.
  • Major oil spills have not occurred on the North Slope or adjacent oceans through operation of the oil fields.
  • Many activities associated with oil development have changed the North Slope landscape in ways that have had accumulating aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual consequences.
  • Modern western culture, including oil development and the revenue stream it created, has resulted in major, important, and probably irreversible changes to the way of life in North Slope communities.
  • Networks of seismic trails and trails of other off-road vehicles, ice roads, and ice pads cover large areas of the tundra. They cause concern because of the damage they do to vegetation and because of their visibility from the air.
  • Offshore exploration and development and the announcement of offshore sales have resulted in perceived risks to Inupiaq culture that are widespread and intense and are accumulating effects. The Inupiat of the North Slope have a centuries-old nutritional and cultural relationship with the bowhead whale.
  • Proposals to explore and develop oil resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have resulted in widespread, intense perceived risks to Gwich'in culture that themselves are accumulating effects. The Gwich'in Indians of northeast Alaska and northwest Canada have a centuries-old nutritional and cultural relationship with the Porcupine Caribou Herd.
  • Roads have had effects as far-reaching and complex as any physical component of the North Slope oil fields. In addition to their direct effects on the tundra, indirect effects are caused by dust, roadside flooding, thermokarst, and roadside snow accumulation.
  • Seismic exploration is expanding westward into the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and southward into the foothills of the Brooks Range. Current technology and regulations governing seismic-exploration permits and other off-road travel have reduced but not eliminated damage to the tundra.
  • The communities of the North Slope have not been adequately involved in most research in the region. As a result, some important information concerning accumulated effects is missing or sparse.
  • The current, altered way of life of North Slope communities will be impossible to maintain unless enough money continues to come into those communities from outside sources after oil and gas activities cease.
  • The full accumulation of effects of oil and gas activities to date, as well as future accumulation, cannot be assessed without better quantitative information about the ways in which various kinds of effects extend for various distances.
  • The high predation rates have reduced the reproductive success of some bird species in industrial areas to the extent that, at least in some years, reproduction is insufficient to balance mortality.
  • The new technology has reduced but not totally eliminated damage to the tundra.
  • The oil industry and regulatory agencies have made dramatic progress in reducing the effects of new gravel fill by reducing the size of the gravel footprint required for many types of facilities and by substituting ice for gravel in some roads and pads. Much less attention has been directed to restoring already disturbed sites.
  • The ready availability of new sources of food from people in the oil fields has resulted in increases in predator densities.
  • The tundra of the North Slope has been altered by extensive off-road travel. Networks of seismic-exploration trails cover extensive areas.
  • Water for ice roads and pads and for other purposes is taken from lakes on the North Slope. Water depth has a great influence on the distribution of fish in coastal-plain lakes because lakes shallower than 1.8 m (6 ft) freeze to the bottom in winter.