PRUDHOE BAY, ALASKA — The visitor sees an otherworldly landscape of flat tundra stretching to the horizon, crossed by a jumbled network of industrial buildings, pipelines, and electric lights blinking through the fog.
But for the 4,000 to 5,000 people who work here, a trip to the North Slope oil fields means simply another day at the office.
Three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, the oil complex here is the economic heart of Alaska, producing 4 of every 5 dollars in the state treasury. Fields on the North Slope of the Brooks Range yield nearly a quarter of all domestic oil production.
The sprawling complex is also one of the world's most remote and specialized work sites. The Slope's bitter Arctic cold is notorious, and doorways facing the Arctic Ocean are caged in metal bars for protection against lurking polar bears. Even the well heads are encased by tiny structures to reduce exposure to the elements.
Slope workers, employed by British Petroleum, Atlantic Richfield, and their contractors, commute here by jet, usually from 650 miles to the south in Anchorage. They generally put in 12-hour days for a week or two at a time. Then they fly home for a similar off-duty period. During the weeks off, most workers' places are filled by alter egos who hold the same titles and often occupy the same rooms in the residential camps.
But conditions here are not quite as plush as they were leading up to the oil-production peak in 1988. Since then, oil-field operators have merged some functions, shortened their lists of contractors, and trimmed their work forces. They have also tightened belts at the workplace and in residential camps: Housekeepers no longer make daily visits to tidy workers' rooms, for example, and cafeteria meals are less sumptuous than in the boom years.
Where Slope workers reside when they're not on the job is a touchy subject in Alaska. Twenty-six percent of the workers, earning 22 percent of the wages, are from outside the state. The telltale "outsider" signs of cowboy boots and Southern twangs sometimes stir resentment.
Arco and a British Petroleum division do much of their business with native-owned contractors, subsidiaries of the regional corporations formed under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. As a result, dissenting voices are sometimes heard in the oil patch. Many Interior Alaska Athabascan Indians are fighting efforts to drill in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including some employees of Athabascan-owned Doyon Drilling.
Duane Solomon, a Doyon Drilling well technician, is the son of a leader in the campaign to keep the refuge coastal plain free of oil rigs. "I'm with him," Duane says of his father, Jonathon Solomon, a former Fort Yukon tribal chief and a member of an antidrilling steering committee. But if the refuge coastal plain is ever open to drilling, "I'd kind of like to see Doyon do it," he says.