ANWR Special Report: Inupiat life driven by oil

BARROW, Alaska ?

The majority of Inupiat Eskimos favor opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and support an amendment to the Energy Bill that is expected to be introduced any day now, said Oliver Leavitt, chairman of the board for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

“We depend on the oil,” he said in an interview. “We have no other industry up here ? no fishing, no forestry, no agriculture. As long as it is done right and environmentally safe, there’s nothing wrong with development.”

As the Energy Bill is debated in Congress, Sen. Frank Murkowski, (R-Alaska) has promised to introduce an amendment to S. 517 that is certain to add fuel to the raging national debate over whether ANWR should be preserved as wilderness or developed as a promising oil field.

Gwich’in Athabascan communities in Alaska and northwest Canada oppose oil drilling for fear that it will disturb the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates some 700 miles to the Arctic coastal plan where oil development would occur.

Fourteen Gwich’in communities jointly passed a resolution in 1988 to prohibit development and protect the 123,000-member Porcupine herd. Caribou play a central role in their cultural and spiritual practices, and they rely on the caribou for the bulk of their diet.

On the vast North Slope of Alaska ? “the last frontier” ? survival has always been hard. Living off the frozen tundra and the icy waters of the Beaufort Sea requires hunting polar bears and seals, and taking whaling crews out in small boats through breaks in the ice off the Arctic coastline. In brief summers when the sun shines 24-7, the land turns green and caribou, fish, birds and berries supplement the local diet.

Most Americans can’t imagine living on the edge of the continent with 2 months of total darkness and temperatures that drop to 50 below zero. But for thousands of years, Inupiat Eskimos have managed to carve out a hardy way of life and develop a culture that honors their connection to the land.

Before oil brought revenues, living conditions in the eight Inupiat villages spread across the North Slope were harsh: no running water, electricity or toilets, no heat in their homes, no schools or health care for thousands of miles.

That all changed with the discovery of oil in the late 1960s. The U.S. government settled aboriginal land claims with Alaska natives in part to tap rich oil fields on the North Slope coastal plain.

Under provisions of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, the government ceded 44 million acres of land and 2.5 million to some 234 village and 13 regional Native corporations.

The Inupiats wisely set up a municipal government, the North Slope Borough, to tax revenues driven by oil. They built schools, a regional health clinic, waterlines and sewers; electricity and heating was available to their people for the first time.

“Originally, we owned the entire North Slope of Alaska, 55 million acres of aboriginal land,” Leavitt said. “That’s been reduced to about 5 million today.”

The Inupiat-owned ASRC was excluded from selecting land in what became the National Petroleum Reserve and Prudhoe Bay oil fields. After the state and federal government took choice lands, ASRC was left with about 15 million acres to select from within the national wildlife refuge.

The catch is they are not allowed to develop oil resources because the land is in a wildlife refuge. It takes an act of Congress to approve any development in ANWR.

Leavitt said they met with Gwich’in leaders several times and invited them to see successful oil developments operating in the fragile Arctic environment.

“We wanted to have some cultural exchange and to show them it can be done prudently,” he said. “Thirty years ago, Inupiats opposed oil drilling too because our people thought the caribou would stop coming. They said ‘there goes the fish and wildlife,’ but it hasn’t turned out that way. In fact, the caribou here have increased in number.”

Leavitt said ASRC has worked with the oil industry for more than 20 years and they have seen oil companies consistently meet environmental standards. “Of course, there are little oil spills here and there, but they are cleaned up right away. The borough has placed strict environment standards on oil operations that are higher than EPA’s.”

ASRC, with 8,000 Inupiat shareholders, owns subsurface rights to 92,160 acres of land in the wilderness refuge along with the Kaktovik Village Corporation, which owns surface rights. Both village and regional corporation leaders say it is in best interest of their people to allow carefully monitored drilling in hopes that exploration will yield new production.

The House bill that passed last year would limit exploration to 2,000 acres in ANWR and Leavitt believes new technology will enable less disturbance of the tundra. Work is prohibited during summer months when the tundra can easily be scarred by heavy equipment.

“Ice roads” are constructed in winter months to prevent long-term environmental damage, he said, and the bulk of work in building drilling pads and infrastructure occurs when the land is frozen.

“Technology has improved,” Leavitt said. “Now they can build one pad and use directional drilling which angles sideways to tap a field 35 miles away.”

ASRC does not own any oil rigs or drill; instead the company owns a host of subsidiaries that provide services to major oil companies, including Chevron and British Petroleum, that lease ASRC land throughout the region.

The Inupiats have parlayed the profits earned from oil into a successful corporation with some 40 subsidiaries that generate more than 900 million in annual revenues. Their businesses include oil refineries, aerospace engineering, construction, communications and oil field services.

Exploratory wells have been drilled on ASRC lands over a 25-year period, but no development occurred until recently when the Alpine oil field was discovered. It turned out to be the fifth-largest discovery on the North Slope and is expected to yield at least 429 million barrels of oil.

Half of the Alpine leases are on ASRC land and Leavitt said income from that field is sorely needed to sustain services that are in place. With production at Prudhoe Bay steadily declining, tax revenues are decreasing for the North Slope Borough and the many services it provides to Inupiat people.

That’s why ASRC and its Inupiat owners want to see ANWR opened. Leavitt said they believe they can develop oil, create new jobs and preserve their environment at the same time.

“It’s our backyard,” he said. “We want to make sure we maintain our subsistence way of life and that nothing is ruined. At the end of the day when the oil is gone and the last switch is turned off, we’ll be the ones who will still be here.”