Book explores oil industry's impact on Alaska

Long-time journalist blows the whistle on a host of suspects

Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2004

No one can argue that the phenomenon that some people call "the oil bidness" has had an enormous effect on the history of Alaska - at least as big an effect as the coming of the Russians.

Alaska Agonistes: The Age of Petroleum, How Big Oil

Bought Alaska

By Joe LaRocca. Rare Books, 2003.

441 pages. Hardcover, $29.95.

Measuring its effect is another matter.

Journalist Joe LaRocca is the latest quixotic entrant in the measuring lists with his book "Alaska Agonistes," which he describes as "an anecdotal political history of the modern oil industry in Alaska." The book's purpose, he writes, is "to show how the invasion of Alaska by multi-national oil companies in general, and the intrusion of the trans Alaska pipeline in particular has transmuted its social, political, cultural and environmental landscapes and reshaped them to conform to the needs, dictates and whims of Big Oil. It makes the case that Alaska's democratic processes have been virtually taken over by the oil industry to the detriment of self-government, but, oddly, with the consent of the majority of the governed."

As is readily seen in such proclamations, LaRocca repeatedly takes stances that are bound to be "fighting words" for some readers. For example, on the front flyleaf he calls Alaska "the nation's most celebrated and denigrated oil province." He further contends that Alaska has evolved "from a provincial outpost to a modern industrial state, the most socialistic in the nation...where the oil industry and government are its two biggest employers."

How did he gain his knowledge and insights? In the fall of 1967, Joe LaRocca left his home state of Pennsylvania to take a job with the Daily News-Miner in Fairbanks. He served as legislative correspondent during the sessions of the state legislature in Juneau, and became natural resources editor a couple of years later. He made many fact-finding trips to the North Slope. After a year of editing the "Resources Tab," however, he took the University of Alaska Fairbanks to task for accepting a grant from Atlantic Richfield to finance construction of residences for university faculty. The publisher asked him to cease expressing his opinions in his column. LaRocca could not comply, and gave notice.

LaRocca then became a freelance journalist for both print and broadcast media, and covered the legislature through 1986 (with a year off to study at Harvard). At one time or another during this period, he reported for The Anchorage Times, the Juneau Empire, the All-Alaska Weekly, KFRB in Fairbanks, KINY in Juneau (as news director) and The New York Times. From 1972-74, he published a monthly journalism review and public affairs journal. One of the things he is proud of is acquiring fake union credentials and working for three months on the pipeline, "undercover and incognito." He reported on what he considered faulty management and construction practices under the pseudonym Xerxes.

He particularly relishes charged vocabulary - words like "chicanery," "featherbedding" and "secretly" and phrases such as "in denial," "outright abuse," "smoking gun," "blew the whistle," "robotic public relations clones" and "proprietary information."

LaRocca is not shy about condemning either large companies or important politicians. For example, in the chapter "False Promises, Falsely Renewed," he condemns Alyeska Pipeline Service Company for "its long history of mismanagement." In the chapter "The Two Faces of Jay Hammond," he takes aim at the former governor's 2001 memoir, "Chips from the Chopping Block," and cites specific examples (giving page numbers) of awkward use of syntax and verbosity, fractured usage, pretentious usage, and even errors of fact. He says Hammond is "not a real Republican" and accuses him of "eight years of pervasive mismanagement" of state government.

Bill Sheffield is also given his own chapter, in which LaRocca takes credit for being "the provocateur" when in 1983 Sheffield came under scrutiny for alleged abuse of public office, and for discovering and reporting that the Sheffield administration had "improperly awarded some $6 million in non-competitive contracts for engineering services to Enserch subsidiaries."

Occasionally LaRocca bumps into someone he approves of, such as the "brilliant and idiosyncratic" Ed Boyko, an Anchorage lawyer who served as attorney general under Wally Hickel.

LaRocca really gets on a roll when he critiques fellow authors in the chapter "Other Scriveners: Hit-and-Run Literati." Here he lists the dozen non-fiction books written between 1970 and 1980 about the pipeline and related North Slope oil developments, and explains why he "regards most of them with some skepticism." He generalizes that most of the authors of these books were from Outside and "hopped commercial jets to Alaska nursing pre-conceived notions about what they would find." Among them are Booton Herndon, Daniel Chasan, Bryan Cooper, Bryan Sage, Mary Berry, Kenneth Andrasco, Dermot Cole of Fairbanks and John Strohmeyer.

LaRocca's book is sure to fuel controversy. It would have more credibility if he had included footnotes to his own articles on oil and politics and to sources he cites, such as Alyeska's 29-volume "Project Description," the Tussing/Barlow report and President Jimmy Carter's 1977 "Decision and Report to Congress." An Index would have been very helpful.

By the way, on p. 115, LaRocca refers to "Jacquin Miller."

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