Experimental and Speculative Resource Geographies on Alaska’s North Slope

Authors: Jonathan Luedee*, University of Toronto
Topics: Resources, Polar Regions, Environment
Keywords: Arctic, experimental ecologies, resource extraction
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 36
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper investigates the way in which oil companies conjured Alaska’s resource future through the production of a speculative and experimental research program in the 1970s. In 1968, the Atlantic Richfield Company announced that exploratory drilling had revealed a massive deposit of oil at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope. Before extraction could begin, however, corporate actors had to demonstrate that that the oil and gas industry possessed the infrastructural capacity and technocratic expertise to build a pipeline system that could transport North Slope oil to southern markets without disturbing sensitive Arctic ecologies. To satisfy the state’s emerging regulations around environmental impact statements, oil companies established an experimental research program that involved the construction of a simulated pipeline that intersected the migratory route of a caribou herd in northern Alaska. Industry-sponsored ecologists observed and documented caribou interactions with the structure, and produced a series of reports in which they argued that design features like ramps and buried sections of pipeline would mitigate the impact that development would have on caribou. Drawing on literature in STS, the paper demonstrates that oil companies created an “experimental space” on Alaska’s North Slope through which corporate actors harnessed control of the production of Arctic environmental science to advance industry interests. Through an examination of this experimental resource geography, I argue that the production of images and models that depicted caribou successfully crossing the simulated pipeline proved to be a crucial step in the industry’s efforts to render North Slope oil transportable and therefore extractable.

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