Smithsonian Strikes Oil

By Mokhiber, Russell | The Nation, December 1, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Smithsonian Strikes Oil


Mokhiber, Russell, The Nation


It had all the trappings of a party at the American Petroleum Institute: stretch limousines; halibut in a blanket; rich desserts; the Alaska Congressional delegation; oil industry executives and their spouses. But in fact it was a gathering at the Smithsonian Institution in late October of several hundred guests and reporters at an opening of a new exhibit titled "Oil From the Arctic: Building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline."

In the words of the Smithsonian, the exhibit at its Museum of American History was "made possible" by a $300,000 grant from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the consortium of Arco, British Petroleum and Exxon, among others, that built the pipeline. The lavish party was also paid for by Alyeska, but Valeska Hilbig, a spokesperson for the museum, said that the amount the company paid for the party was "proprietary information."

The exhibit features a twenty-one-foot section of the pipeline, supplemented by stories from pipeline workers and Alaska natives, art photographs, maps and a thirty-foot timeline. The timeline includes a short mention of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but there are no pictures documenting the spill and its effects or any reference to the fact that Exxon pleaded guilty to environmental crimes and was liable for millions of dollars in fines to the government and payments to those victimized by its crime. Nor is there mention of the ongoing corporate harassment of Alyeska whistle blowers concerned about the safety of the pipeline.

In fact, before flying to Washington for the Smithsonian shindig, Alyeska president Bob Malone was forced to issue a public apology to Patrick Higgins, an Alyeska in-house monitor of whistleblower complaints, whose computer files were wrong-fully downloaded by company lawyers.

"It's no shocker that this feel-good exhibit downplays the major environmental problems with the pipeline," said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League. "Alyeska is funding this exhibit in an attempt to advance its own political agenda. They want the American people to believe they can be trusted to drill in fragile wilderness areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But no matter how much they spend on glitzy public relations campaigns, Alyeska cannot cover up twenty years of environmental degradation." Rick Steiner, a professor at the University of Alaska, said the exhibit also ignores the bigger picture--that the oil from Prudhoe Bay is not needed. "The United States could save considerably more oil than comes down the Alaska pipeline each day simply by instituting well-known, reliable energy-saving technologies," Steiner said.

Outside the exhibit hall, Jeffrey Stine, curator of Engineering and Environmental History at the museum, was having none of the criticism. "I'm not a shill for anyone," Stine said. "If it weren't for Alyeska's grant, this project wouldn't exist. But the company had no control over the exhibit.

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