In the small museum in Valdez, Alaska is a replica of a statue that was built to commemorate the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Once it was possible to enter the oil terminal across the bay to see the real thing, but these are post-9/11 days. When work began on the pipeline in 1974 tens of thousands of workers flooded into Fairbanks in the biggest influx the city had seen since the gold rush. The telephone exchange ran out of numbers. The completed 799-mile, 48-inch-diameter pipe splits the state, slicing a line from the very north at Prudhoe Bay across three mountain ranges down to where Valdez huddles beside Prince William Sound. Oil travels its length at a brisk walking pace, 800,000 barrels daily, arriving at the terminal twelve days after it set out. More than 16 billion barrels have so far been extracted, making Prudhoe Bay the biggest oilfield in the United States. The statue is of five construction workers, leaning against each other at the end of a long job. Beneath them there is a plaque that reads ‘We didn’t know it couldn’t be done’.

The day after I arrive I am down at the marina, waiting for Mark Swanson. I had interviewed Mark several hours earlier and he had invited me out sailing. He turns up with a different hat on, no longer the smooth-talking executive of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (RCAC). Specifically, he calls it his Nanook of the North hat, the beaver flaps tied down over his ears. It might be May, but there are drifts here thirty feet high and a biting wind that brings tears to the eyes. We cast off and motor out past the moored fishing fleet, boats with names like Pagan and Orion and Dancing Bear. On the far side of the bay, just outside the exclusion zone of the oil terminal, his wife sets shrimp pots. The terminal is capable of holding more than nine million barrels of oil in its eighteen storage tanks, yet having been anticipating some Arctic version of the Emirates to sneer at, some great belching metaphor of humanity’s ambition and hubris, I am quietly under-whelmed. There is so much space and snow, so much beauty, that the terminal, and the refinery across the water, are easy to ignore. The berthed tanker looks absurdly insignificant. The mountains shoot straight up, the summits of the tallest lost in cloud. We set the jib and mainsail and Mark shuts off the engine. The creak of the boat, the shrieks of the terns. The call of the everpresent raven. A sea otter bobs on his back, frowning down his moustaches at us, crunching on a mollusc.

I had also expected some indication of the oil spill, an ominous atmosphere, some stain like the watermark on a bath. Yet I saw none. A few miles to the west is Bligh Reef. It was here, just after midnight on Good Friday 1989, that the Exxon Valdez ran aground. Captain Joe Hazelwood was below deck, dozing; the third mate was on the bridge. Much was later made of Hazelwood’s irresponsibility, his heavy drinking the night before. In 2009 he offered a ‘heartfelt apology’ to the people of Alaska, yet he maintained then, as he always had, that it had not been his fault. ‘The true story is out there for anybody who wants to look … but that’s not the sexy story and that’s not the easy story’, he said. Gregory Palast, an American investigative reporter, wrote on the tenth anniversary, that ‘the Fable of the Drunken Skipper has served the oil industry well. It transforms the most destructive oil spill in history into a tale of human frailty—a terrible, but one-time, accident. But broken radar, missing equipment, phantom spill personnel, faked tests, the profit-mad disregard of law—all these made the spill disaster not an accident but an inevitability’. Amongst other things, the third mate did not see the reef on his radar because the radar had been broken for a year. Exxon had deemed it too expensive to fix.

Somewhere between 10.8 and 38 million gallons of crude, depending on who you believe, spread out over 1300 miles of coastline. Ten thousand workers spent four summers spraying dispersant, soaping birds and scrubbing rocks. Exxon claims it spent US$2.1 billion on clean-up, recovering 10 percent of the oil. It was the biggest spill in US waters until surpassed by the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Indeed, it has since slipped off the list of the biggest fifteen spills in history.

Perhaps some little good came of it. The RCAC was set up in 1990, and Mark is proud of the things they have achieved. He likens the oil industry’s presence in the Sound to your teenager borrowing your car. They’re going to do it whatever you say, so you might as well do your best to make them safe. ‘No one’, he says, ‘wants to send in the ambulance. Or the hearse’. As such they emphasise prevention, and Mark’s PowerPoint presentation is certainly impressive: the mandatory doublehulled tankers; the world-class tug escort system; the weather monitoring; the multiple lookouts; the alcohol screening of crew—all this has come about since the council began its work. There are emergency personnel and local fishermen trained in clean-up, and dedicated machinery permanently on site. The terminal was once the single biggest source of benzine on the planet; since 2006 they have captured 99 per cent of those emissions. A lot of what they have in place is unique. It has been so effective that they are considering creating one in the Gulf of Mexico. Horses and stable doors.

As for compensation, Exxon appealed the US$5 billion it was ordered to pay until eventually, in 2008, a judge conceded a much reduced sum of US$507.5 million. In 2008 Exxon posted the largest annual profit of any corporation in US history. The figure of US$507.5 million was equivalent to roughly four days’ work. They told me in Cordova, a fishing town down the coast, that many of those due compensation, the fishermen who lost their livelihoods, the Indigenous people who lost their subsistence hunting grounds, the families of those who committed suicide, had died in the intervening years. A study of the psychological stress that followed the spill concluded that the protracted litigation process had ‘resulted in continued collective trauma and psychological stress … a secondary disaster which may be more significant than the [spill]’. One of the lawyers working for Exxon at the time was Sean Parnell, who later became Governor of Alaska.

It is easy to forget, here and now. How easy, how enticing, to forget. That small tanker, receding as we cross back towards town. Soon the fleets will be heading out for the season, first halibut, then salmon. The snow gleaming white in the sunshine, the water a depthless blue. Yet it has not gone away. In his office Mark shows me crude that they have gathered every year since the spill, viscous and rancid, dug just a little way below the gravel of the shoreline, labelled with the year in a row of jam jars on a shelf like homemade preserves. Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant, tells me that ‘most of the fish and wildlife populations are still not recovered. Those responsible have long since left, but those in Prince William Sound are still living with it. The herring fishery has been closed for years. It’s resulted in unemployment, it’s resulted in a lack of economic stimulus in the spring before the salmon season starts. But even more important than that, to me, the collapse of the herring population has caused all sorts of ecological repercussions. It’s such an important foraged fish in the ecosystem for seals and sea lions and birds and other fish, even humpback whales’.

No one is more aware of the delicate ecological balance of the Sound than Stan Stephens, a tourboat operator who began working here in 1971. He has warned me that he is not in the best of health, but he still seems keen to meet. He is almost inaudible, his face much shrunken from the one that appears in photos on the sideboards. Stan had skippered one of the first boats to respond to the spill, and he shows me some extracts from his diaries at the time.

March 29th 1989

I try not to think about what has occurred here, I try to block out the past. I often think of the first time I experienced Prince William Sound. It was like a dream—I didn’t think anything as perfect and untouched existed. I was really worried when they decided to move oil through PWS. The oil companies ensured us of protection in many ways.

April 18th 1989

Today is absolute confusion. They found a lot of oil north of Perry Island in Wells Passage. Equipment is starting to break down. The oil is getting so spread out they cannot handle it. Here is a whole month gone by without a real understanding of those in charge how big Prince William Sound really is. I’m dedicating the rest of my life and spare time to the protection of the environment.

April 23rd 1989

We must never let ourselves forget what happened here and what is happening around the world in the name of progress. To damage such a beautiful spot is unforgivable. We must do our best to clean up the Sound, but we can never forget or let up on the oil companies.

He was involved in the RCAC since its inception until stepping down from the board of directors last year due to ill health. Outside the snow is coming down again. He stares out into it grimly. ‘Latest spring I ever seen’, he says. ‘I’m sorry you got such a mess.’

‘Why is that?’ I ask.

‘Damned if I know. But this snowfall isn’t average.’

‘The major problem with Alaska’, he continues, ‘is that we’re an oil state. Period. If you were to understand the culture of the oil industry you would understand everything you need in one package. It’s bottom-line culture. It has some of the finest engineers, and some of the best people, working for it that you’re going to find anywhere. But we have to put risk first. If we don’t there’s not a thing that can be done. The Gulf of Mexico would never have happened if it hadn’t been for the culture. BP doesn’t fix something until it breaks. They’ll take big risk over human life to increase that bottom line. We’re all too involved with the mighty dollar’. He shakes his head. ‘But they’ve got the big lobbyists and the big money. What I say doesn’t make the beans one iota. I don’t see a future. Really, personally, I think we’re going to destroy the earth.’

The more he talks the sadder he becomes. He tells me how, if he had enough energy, he’d be out there fighting still. He hoped, he said, to get enough energy back. ‘I watched this pipeline being built from the beginning. One of the greatest and most fantastic engineering feats you could ever imagine. After Exxon happened I decided to fight until I die. We’re put on earth, as far as I’m concerned, to protect Mother Earth. If you are right, then fight for it and stand up for it and be willing to die for it. If not, you got no business to be involved.’ He looks up at me. ‘Adam, it’s so easily fixable’, he says. ‘It takes good, honest men. And we just don’t have them. Our leader needs to be an honest son-of-a-bitch.’

I meet Mead Treadwell, Lieutenant Governor, in his Anchorage office on the seventeenth floor. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out over the Knik Arm towards the mountains. Last year the United States became the world’s biggest oil producer and for the first time in decades it was extracting more than it imported. Saudi America was the phrase being used, but the party was far from Alaska. ‘There’s definitely a hit to the state pride’, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash told Fox News. ‘There’s a certain amount of embarrassment that a place as over-regulated and over-taxed as California is eclipsing Alaska’. The shale revolution, which heralded this new boom, was firmly in the south. After a 2.1 million-barrel peak in 1988, just 531,000 barrels came out of Prudhoe Bay in 2013, with 312,000 barrels projected for ten years’ time. The pipeline was in the process of becoming, in Treadwell’s words, the world’s longest ChapStick. And it wasn’t just Alaskan pride being hit. Almost 90 per cent of the state budget comes from the oil and gas industry, and it provides one third of Alaskan jobs. It’s what enables the state to get away with no income or sales tax. ‘Neither fishing nor tourism could possibly exact enough margin to replace the government take on [oil]’, said Treadwell. The state government has five ideas for redressing this spiral—‘five big enchiladas’, as Treadwell calls them. Offshore exploration is one; opening up the National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are two more. Then there are the major gas deposits on the North Slope, and finally there is the oil that remains in Prudhoe Bay, more difficult to reach, but as much, he tells me, as has already been extracted. Any one of these projects could sort out Alaska’s worries for many years to come; all five of them involve significant challenge.

‘I like to talk about Alaska being all about access’, Treadwell says to me. ‘There’s legal access, there’s physical access, there’s intellectual access, and there’s access to labour and capital.’ It is that access that has been haunting Shell’s offshore plans for years. After years of setbacks and legal challenges it began sinking exploratory top holes off the north coast in 2012, yet by the end of the year one of its rigs had been cited with multiple safety regulations and the other had broken free of its tug and run aground. ‘It was a calamity’, Rick Steiner tells me. ‘Here’s one the biggest corporations on earth, under intense scrutiny after the Deepwater Horizon, moving into this new frontier, and look at the series of mistakes they made. It shows, over and over again, that people make mistakes, equipment fails, and unless you have a very, very high bar for industrial safety you can pretty much expect some major release of oil.’ Were a blowout offshore to occur close to freeze-up, it could be months before response teams could penetrate the ice to cap it. The emphasis is on prevention, because the notion of clearing up a spill, once spilt, is seen by practically everyone I meet as a fantasy.

For Alan Allen, who has spent his career advising Shell, amongst others, on spills, it is about managing expectations. ‘We don’t put a fire department on every corner of every village so that they can get to every house and prevent it burning down’, he says. ‘We know we can’t afford that. And even if we could we’d probably still lose houses. And yet most of the population thinks that we should be able to clean up every spill. They’re not content with 10 per cent, 20 per cent, and yet that is a phenomenal response.’ Dependent as we are on hydrocarbons in every aspect of our lives, he says, the pragmatic approach is to minimise risk, whilst educating the public as to what constitutes a risk that is acceptable. ‘It’s always so satisfying to see a fresh new open mind, a child that sees the benefits of hydrocarbons and how it can play a good role in this life. They begin to adapt to a better philosophy of risk and what they’re willing to put up with. Sometimes that filters back into the family and others who are opposed. A kind of mellowing out.’

When I ask him if research has progressed far enough to allow companies to safely drill offshore, he reminds me of the importance of managing expectations. ‘If you plan it properly, and spend the money necessary to build good and hardy systems that can take some of the worst environmental challenges, and if you put in place a very robust response package, I think yes, the industry can go out and do a good job. It’s just that we know that with the best of planning, still accidents can happen, and we could be faced occasionally with a scenario that in hindsight we’d say is intolerable and unacceptable.’

Shell put drilling on hold for the 2014 season, following challenges in the courts and its first profit warning for a decade. In August it filed exploration plans for 2015 and has applied for an extension of its leases, which expire in 2017. Shell has sunk US$6 billion into Arctic exploration and so far has nothing to show for it except a swath of bad publicity. ‘If you take a step back from Alaska specifically’, Charlie Kronick, Senior Climate Advisor at Greenpeace UK, says to me, ‘if you look at where the industry’s at, they’re under a huge amount of pressure to get a grip on their capital spending. Shareholders are getting fed up with it. They need to show that they can still grow in the way they used to. Which is to go to new areas, get technically challenging oil and get it out to market at relatively low cost. And there’s very little evidence that they can do any of those things. That’s why the Arctic is so important. It makes it look like the old model still works. We would argue that their failure to succeed in that environment shows exactly why the old model doesn’t. The Arctic is a snapshot. It’s a moment in time where we could look back and say this really is the beginning of the end of big oil.’

Perhaps. Yet for now, one way or another, the industrialisation of the Arctic is happening. Alaska needs to make up its shortfall. If offshore continues to stall there are still four other enchiladas. There is also one of the largest coal deposits in the world, as much as three trillion tonnes. That alone contains more carbon than is currently in the global atmosphere. As the ice retreats the North Coast is becoming a viable shipping passage: seventy-one ships made the journey last year through Russia’s Northern Sea Route, up from just four in 2010. And while Shell is still attempting to cut through red tape, in Russia it has already begun drilling. As Daniel Lum, an Inuit and activist, put it to me: ‘Everyone is just waiting for the million-dollar picture: of the polar bear covered in oil.’ For the time being, the future of the Arctic hangs in the balance.

Stan Stephens, who vowed to fight until he died, passed away in Valdez in September.

The author thanks the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for funding the journey.