Twenty-five years after Project Soda Straw and the Restless Glacier had faded into dim memories, I found myself once again preparing to go to Alaska. Still with the Geological Survey, I no longer pursued problems of military geology, but was now involved in environmental analyses of mineral resource developments on the public lands.
Since my earliest studies of geology, the Malaspina Glacier had fascinated me. It was a perfect example of a “piedmont glacier,” one that had poured out of high mountain valleys onto the coastal lowlands where it spread out into the shape of a huge circular blob, about 35 miles in diameter at its maximum stage some years ago. It was one of the few Alaskan glaciers large enough to show up on even the smallest-scale maps of the territory.
The proposal —
Near the head of this glacier, surrounded by five miles of ice in every direction, was a small chain of hills known as the Samovar Hills. It was about to be designated as part of a National Park. The Shell Oil Company held a lease on it for petroleum development. It was a promising site – tar could be seen in some of the creeks that drained the hills and fed downstream into Oily Lake.
Federal regulations provided that Shell would be compensated for the taking of this land, if they had done any work to develop the lease. Alas, they had done no work at all, and they stood to lose it without compensation. But it was not too late to file a development plan.
Before any development plan could be approved, an environmental assessment would have to be made. Very likely, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would also have to be prepared and processed under the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. I convened a meeting in Anchorage where all the “usual suspects” – representatives of various Federal and State agencies having an interest in this development – joined to discuss preparation of an EIS. The Federal agencies included the Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and maybe more.
All the Federal representatives (the “Feds”) agreed that an EIS would have to be prepared, and that their agencies should participate. I was able, by observing the relative states of alertness and sleepiness among those at the meeting, to nominate a fellow named Peter as the leader of the task force that would prepare the EIS. He was unique in the depth and variety of questions he raised during the meeting.
Before our meeting adjourned, we heard a history of negotiations to date with Shell Oil. A couple of months earlier, after providing a general summary of the development plan, the company’s team was open to questions. First and foremost was:
“How will you get the oil out, given that the hills are completely surrounded by glaciers?”
Several days later, they announced their plan for getting the oil out. The quality of this plan indicated that we were not dealing with the high-powered scientists and engineers known to inhabit the company. Instead, we were dealing with a junior team considered “good enough” to deal with an EIS task force. The plan follows:
PLAN A: BUILD A PIPELINE ACROSS THE GLACIER
Suppressing some humor and astonishment, the Feds calmly pointed out that glaciers move more or less constantly, and therefore a fixed pipeline would not be sustainable.
This time, the company team needed a week or two to come up with a revised plan, as follows:
PLAN B: BUILD A PIPELINE ON WHEELS ACROSS THE GLACIER
Again, the Feds were respectful as they pointed out that glacier surfaces can change rapidly, and can present such features as crevasses, meltwater channels, and other kinds of obstruction that could snag wheels and tear a pipeline apart. A pipeline on wheels would not be sustainable.
After several weeks of study, the company team came out with a new plan, really quite sophisticated, as follows:
PLAN C: BORE A PIPELINE BENEATH THE GLACIER
Boreholes would be drilled at a 45-degree slant from each side of the glacier, with the intent that the two would meet at great depth beneath the center of the glacier. A radioactive source would be placed in the bottom of the first borehole to reach the center. A radiation-sensing device would guide the second borehole to within three feet of meeting the first. Explosives would then be used to shatter any rocks separating the boreholes, so that oil could pass freely from one to the other.
Such a scheme had never been carried out before. However, each of the critical steps had, separately, been used successfully: slant drilling, radioactive homing, and transfer of oil via shattered rock.
Plan C was complex and somewhat dubious, but we couldn’t reject it out of hand as we did with Plans A and B. We would have to take it seriously. The next item on our agenda would be a visit to the Samovar Hills.
The field trip —
Our party of about twelve men flew in a small plane to the airfield at Yakutat, about 400 miles from Anchorage. Here we transferred into a large helicopter for the second hop, into the Samovar Hills. That flight covered a distance of 55 miles, 12 of which were over Yakutat Bay. Water in the Bay was extremely cold, in the temperature range where a human could survive only a few minutes. As a safety precaution, we all put on insulating suits, which I can describe only as resembling the “bunny rabbit” suits that little boys are sometimes forced to wear during Christmas or Easter parties. The principal differences were (1) these suits lacked long ears, (2) the facial opening was small, and (3) the suits were stiff and hard to manage in the confines of a helicopter.
As we flew over the Malaspina glacier, we came to realize what an enormous body of ice it was. At our altitude of about 5,000 feet, there were times when we could see nothing beyond it. Its surface was striped with bands of moraine (rock debris).
Landing on the edge of the Samovar Hills, we found ourselves in a pleasant green oasis among the vast expanses of ice. At times, the nearby ice seemed likely to overwhelm the lower parts of the hills, but we soon realized that the ice was losing, not winning, that battle.
Adjoining the hills were extensive areas of level land where drilling operations could easily be set up. Each man was busy observing features related to his own discipline. I noted the tar in the creek. The fish and wildlife expert was studying a large bear turd, which he dissected by hand to learn what the creature had been eating.
After several hours on the ground, we donned once again the “bunny rabbit” suits and made our way to Yakutat and thence on to Anchorage.
The task force —
Several weeks later, the EIS task force convened at Geological Survey headquarters in Reston, Virginia. I now had a better chance to get to know Peter, the man of deep and varied questions. My nomination of him as Task Force Leader had been approved. Now I realized the enormity of my misjudgment. He had only one-way communication valves. He could ask brilliant questions, and could pronounce weighty judgments. But he lacked any attention span whatever, either to absorb the answers to his questions, or to hear the judgments or opinions of others. He talked incessantly.
I spent a couple of weeks wondering how on earth we could cope with Peter and get anything done on the EIS. And wondering how I had ever managed to be so wrong in nominating him as a leader.
But I must have done something right along the way. The proposed development plan had been working its way upward through Shell Oil, and had finally reached the level of the aforementioned high-powered scientists and engineers. These were practical people who sought assured results. They did not take well to dubious and experimental ideas like boring a pipeline beneath a glacier five miles wide. The development plan was withdrawn. The EIS was canceled and the task force, Peter and all, returned to their normal jobs.
I had been rescued from the consequences of my own folly. I never again had to don the “bunny-rabbit” costume.
* * *
Note: The illustrations for Plans A, B, and C are, of course, fictitious. They consist of “props” in color against the background of a black-and-white photo by the U.S. Geological Survey. When seeking “props,” I started by looking for a suitable soda straw to represent the pipeline, and I used something very similar to a straw. So now the Alaska cycle is complete, having started with Project Soda Straw, and ending with a pipeline project that recalled a soda straw. The two projects shared a common fate: Neither one produced any usable results.
This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)