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
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
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
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.