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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Alaska Agonistes: The Age of Petroleum - How Big Oil Bought Alaska

Reviewed: April 9, 2006
By: Joe E. LaRocca
Publisher: RareBooks, Inc.
440 pages, $29.95

As we continue to debate and anticipate the construction of mega-projects through the Yukon we, the public, and the politicians who salivate so copiously at the thought of being able to claim credit for bringing such wealth to the territory, would do well to examine the potential social, economic, political and environmental costs of such projects.

Joe LaRocca, now retired from the deadline doom of daily reporting, spent twenty years out of his forty in the newspaper game in Alaska, where the legislature and stories related to the oil business were a big part of his beat. This book covers events from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, with glimpses into matters from both before and after those dates.

As the title suggests, LaRocca is pretty much unreservedly critical of what has happened to the state in the wake of the discovery of oil in 1968. Star readers have had a taste of his editorial critique in a couple of columns that have been published here since the spill that took place along the 34-inch diameter feeder pipe on Alaska’s North Slope recently. Five thousand gallons spilled in that accident, which was due to the corrosion of the pipe, corrosion which LaRocca predicted might occur in his book, which first appeared in 2003.

Corrosion might, however, also serve as a metaphor for what LaRocca feels has happened to the government and bureaucracy of the state of Alaska since the late 1960s.

This is not to say that governments everywhere are not capable of self-serving politicking, misspending of public funds, or turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of political and business friends without any extra incentive. What LaRocca observes, however, is that when the stakes are increased all of these behaviors can get worse and the normal checks and balances may not suffice.

It’s a bit like what he says happens inside pipelines. In both this book and his columns he has noted that the anticorrosion coating and cathodic protection system that worked when cold oil was running through a pipe was not nearly so effective when the oil was hot.

Anyone with a basic grasp of history will realize that mega-projects are a breeding ground for corruption. I don’t know all the American examples, but our country’s history begins with the scandals related to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

LaRocca recounts tales of corporate malfeasance, broken agreements, environmental cover-ups and cozy regulatory arrangements which more than live up to his book’s main title and subtitles.

Alaska Agonistes is divided into eight unequal sections. The first five deal with the situation in Alaska: the discovery, the maneuvering, the attempts to influence governments, the ways in which safety and environmental regulations were flouted (and what happened to employees who tried to report it) and how the state was probably bilked out of billions in oil revenues by shady deals, court battles, devious plots and outright lies.

Part seven is a bit different from the rest of the book in that it provides profiles of some of the larger names in the history of Alaskan oil - some good, some bad, some confusingly muddled in their ethics.

Part eight is a sixty page overview of nearly everything else that had been written on this subject up to the time when LaRocca finished this book. It’s not a bibliography, because he wrote mainly out of his own files and knowledge. It’s more like detailed critiques of the work by other scriveners, most of whom get barely more than a passing grade.

I didn’t skip part six, just held it to the last. “Requiem for a Pipeline” is where I came in, so to speak, having lived in Beaver Creek through the halcyon days of the Berger and Lysyk inquiries. This section ought to be required reading for anyone thinking about oil or gas pipelines or railroads out of Alaska and across the Yukon. LaRocca doesn’t say that it can’t be done, but he makes a compelling case for keeping all your wits about you during any negotiations you may engage in with anyone in Alaska connected with the oil industry.

I would be unreservedly enthusiastic about this book except for some omissions that make it a more difficult read. The first is that it has no index. There are so many names of individuals and corporations in here that you lose track of who’s who, and have to spend time flipping through the pages to remind yourself.

In our correspondence Joe has told me that the index is missing due to a problem with the printer, which would have held up the release of the book if he had waited for it. One can only hope for a second edition, in which this might be rectified.

There are maps and pictures, but they’re in one of those annoying center signature bindings, and would be more useful if they were placed in the chapters they relate to, something that is no longer difficult with today’s publishing techniques.

Because the book jumps around a bit, it would have been useful to compile some timelines to help the reader keep track of the chronology. In addition, some organizational charts would be nice, both for the various governments and their departments, and to show the interrelationships among the companies.

Al of that said, this is an important book for these turbulent times, a book full of facts, conjecture and cautionary notes to guide us through the years to come, no matter who might be in charge here after the fall.

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