Albion Monitor /News

Oil Giants Try to Rewrite History

by Danielle Knight

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The huge blue banner of Alaska, waving in the winter breeze outside the Smithsonian museum, helps lure people out of the cold for a controversial new exhibit, "Oil from the Arctic: Building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline."

To the outrage of environmental advocates, the exhibit at the National Museum of American History here was funded by a $300,000 grant from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Alyeska is a consortium including Arco, British Petroleum and Exxon -- the companies that run the billion-dollar pipeline.

No pictures documenting the Exxon Valdez spill and its effects
Visited by thousands of tourists from around the world, the exhibit features a section of the pipeline, supplemented by photographs of smiling pipeline workers, maps, stories, and an elaborate time-line. While there is a short one-sentence mention in the timeline of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill -- followed by a longer explanation of oil companies' safety measures -- environmentalists protest that there are no pictures documenting the spill and its effects.

"Alyeska is funding this feel-good exhibit in an attempt to advance its own political agenda," says Adam Kolton, a campaigner with the Alaska Wilderness League, an advocacy group.

"They want 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 public relations campaigns, Alyeska cannot cover up twenty years of environmental degradation."

While admitting that the project would not exist without Alyeska's money, Jeffery Stine, the main curator of the exhibit, denies being influenced by the consortium. "The company had no control over the exhibit," he says.

"An exhibit that claims to show both sides of the story of oil in Alaska would include more information -- and photographs -- of the largest, most devastating oil spill in history, don't you think?" Kolton told IPS.

Nor is there any information of the ongoing /harassment and firings of Alyeska employees who continue to bring up environmental and safety concerns surrounding the pipeline, he said.

While some members of congress argue that opening up these regions in Arctic Alaska will decrease the country's dependency on oil imports, Greenpeace says a good portion of the oil is exported, usually to Japan
Environmental groups charge the exhibit with downplaying the environmental problems associated with the oil-drilling and exploration in Alaska, and they say the oil companies are paying to publicize their version of history to promote the present billion-dollar oil rush in Alaska.

"Alyeska is using this exhibit to gain public support for its plans to further explore and drill in the fragile wilderness of the Arctic - home to many wildlife species that local communities and indigenous population depend on for hunting and fishing," says Kolton. "Downstairs in the museum store, you can buy a book that advocates drilling in the National Wildlife Refuge," he adds.

Alyeska president Bob Malone denied that the Smithsonian grant is a public relations stunt to push for more drilling.

But at opening ceremonies for the exhibit, Senator Frank Murkowski (R - Alaska) said that the Alaska Congressional delegation was committed to opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

Some members of congress, including Murkowski, argue that opening up these regions in Arctic Alaska to oil exploration will decrease the country's dependency on oil imports.

"It's a total lie -- it's all about oil corporation profits," says Melanie Duchin, an environmental campaigner with Greenpeace in Alaska. "A good portion of this oil is not for domestic consumption -- it's exported -- usually to Japan. Alyeska, with the help of the Smithsonian exhibit, is trying to convince the public that we need to keep drilling and exploring for oil -- especially in the Arctic -- while playing down the environmental effects of oil consumption."

Duchin says the exhibit also ignores larger issues concerning the necessity of oil drilling. "From when you first enter the exhibit, it defends the construction of the pipeline, saying that the United States is dependent on oil and needs the pipeline -- it doesn't mention that the eight billion dollars used to build the pipeline could have gone to research and investments in clean energy - such as solar and wind power," Melanie Duchin, an Alaskan campaigner for the group told IPS.

"It's ironic, that while world leaders are hammering out a climate change treaty to curb the burning of fossil fuels, a national museum is promoting the exploration of oil -- one of the leading causes of heat-trapping greenhouse gases," she added.

While the main curator of the Smithsonian exhibit, Stine, denies being influenced by Alyeska, Ruth Sexton of the museum's development fund office acknowledges the challenge of trying to keep control -- sources of sponsorship often give advice and suggestions," she told IPS. "It would be naive to say that when corporations give money they are not looking to have that donation augment their public relations strategy,"

The corporate sponsorship of exhibits at museums, adds Sexton, is increasing and not that uncommon, "Just look around the museum: the American Chemical Society has funded the exhibit, 'Science in American Life,' and Dupont has sponsored our exhibit on synthetic materials, called 'The Material World.'"

Other museums, like the world-renown botanical garden in St. Louis Missouri, for example, feature exhibits and even whole portions of the institution itself are funded by chemical companies like Monsanto, which has been strongly criticized over the health and environmental effects of its pesticides.

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Albion Monitor December 23, 1997 (

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