WASHINGTON - It's one of the most complicated environmental sagas in U.S. history: the continuing 30-year controversy over the piping of oil from Alaska's North Slope wilderness to the refineries, freeways and furnaces of the Lower 48.
But in a new exhibit at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution, the story of the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline is a simple one: savvy engineers overcame natural, political and environmental obstacles to build an 800-mile-long marvel that made Alaskans rich and strengthened the U.S. economy.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., a consortium of seven big oil companies that built and run the pipeline, paid $300,000 to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to help mount the 1,200-square-foot exhibit. Alyeska's donation also turned a gift shop into much-coveted display space, Smithsonian officials said.
"Oil From the Arctic: Building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline" runs through April. It has won kudos from oil executives and powerful Alaska legislators who favor expanded drilling in Alaska wilderness areas. But it has been condemned by some scientists and environmentalists, who say it gives Uncle Sam's endorsement to an unduly rosy picture of the effects of drilling on America's biggest expanse of wild land.
Defenders of Wildlife view
"There's almost no attention to the wildlife resources or the beauty of Alaska," said James Deane of Defenders of Wildlife, who in the 1970s participated in a conservationists' lawsuit against the pipeline. "There's no mention the pipeline has introduced vehicles and air pollution and water pollution into an area that was pristine. There's nothing about the public outrage in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when people tore up their credit cards. As history, I don't think it's in any way adequate."
Jeffrey K. Stine, the Smithsonian curator who planned the pipeline display, said the fact that Alyeska paid for the exhibit does not taint its objectivity. Executives of Alyeska Pipeline Service never tried to influence the exhibit's content, said Stine, who insisted the show was as balanced as possible given the limited space.
Some critics wouldn't have been happy unless the exhibit took ** an anti-oil-drilling stance, he said. "I could hit people over the head and shake them by the collar and say, 'What does this mean?' But I go to church if I want to be preached to."
Series of controversies
The controversy is one in a series at the Smithsonian, beginning in 1995, when protests by U.S. veterans groups forced changes in a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities to end World War II.
Since then, the Smithsonian has taken heat from the garment industry for an exhibit on sweat shops, and drawn criticism that its objectivity is compromised by ties to corporate sponsors, which now provide one-fourth of the institution's funding.
The centerpieces of the pipeline show, a massive section of surplus pipe and a 30-foot-long display of 1970s-era oil cans bearing company brands, "probably dominate visually" and leave casual viewers with a favorable impression of the industry, Stine said in an interview. "But if you read the exhibit, look at the photos, and think for yourself, you'll see that there is a cost."
"You'd have to be a mind-reader to get that, I think," Deane responded.
Environmentalists were not invited to the Smithsonian's official preview, but Deane viewed the exhibit later at a reporter's request.
"Sure, I'm an environmentalist and I have a point of view," Deane said. "But the real point is, what sort of a presentation do you expect from an institution like the Smithsonian?"
To most Americans, the Smithsonian is more than another museum. The building that now houses the trans-Alaska pipeline exhibit is also home to American icons as diverse as the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter where protesting college students struck a blow in the war against Jim Crow.
Before the discovery of North Slope oil, Alaska was a wilderness sparsely populated by trappers, prospectors and others who didn't mind taking chances. The state still cultivates that image today. But in his book "Crude Dreams," former Anchorage Mayor Jack Roderick argues oil money has profoundly altered the state's character. "Less freewheeling in entrepreneurial spirit, we now seem to be stuck riding the oil tiger," Roderick wrote.
The Smithsonian exhibit doesn't explicitly tackle the issue of what the pipeline means to Alaska, focusing instead on the pipeline as a construction project.