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International Herald Tribune: Push to find new oil threatens way of life for Alaska natives

International Herald Tribune

A bone from the skull of a bowhead whale outside Barrow, Alaska. The Inupiat worry that oil drilling will disrupt their whaling. (Photographs by Damon Winter/The New York Times)

By Jad Mouawad
Monday, December 3, 2007

BARROW, Alaska: Each summer and fall, the Inupiat, natives of the arid north coast of Alaska, take their sealskin boats and gun-fired harpoons and go whale hunting. Kills are celebrated throughout villages as whaling captains share their catches with relatives and neighbors. Muktuk, or raw whale skin and blubber, is a prized delicacy.

But now, that traditional way of life is coming into conflict with one of the modern world’s most urgent priorities: finding more oil.

Royal Dutch Shell is determined to exploit vast reserves believed to lie off the Alaskan coast. The administration of President George W. Bush backs the idea and in recent years has issued offshore leases for an area nearly the size of Maryland.

Those leases have received far less attention than failed efforts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but they may prove to be far more important. By some estimates, the oil under the Alaskan seabed could exceed the reserves remaining in the rest of the United States, though how much might ultimately be recoverable is uncertain.

Shell is eager to find out. It tried to make headway this summer, only to be stopped by an unusual alliance of Inupiat whalers and environmental groups who filed a suit in a U.S. District Court.

They argue that noisy drilling off the Alaska coast could disrupt migration routes for the bowhead whales, making it impossible for the Inupiat to capture their allotted share of about 60 animals. A court hearing was scheduled for Tuesday to consider whether the company can move forward, though a ruling is not expected for months.

Native communities are not unalterably opposed to oil production – on the contrary, many rely on oil for their livelihoods. The North Slope Borough, a huge, county-like organization where most of Alaska’s 10,000 Inupiat live, gets the bulk of its $98 million budget each year from taxing onshore oil operations.

Native corporations also derive a large part of their business from serving the oil industry in Prudhoe Bay. Community leaders are caught between a desire to preserve traditional whaling and the economic necessity of permitting the oil industry to move into new areas.

“It’s a hell of a dilemma,” said Edward Itta, the mayor of the North Slope Borough, who is opposed to Shell’s drilling plans. “Without a doubt, America’s energy needs are way up and something’s going to happen up there. It’s a way of life against an opposing value. This way of life has value; nobody can put it in dollars and cents.”

The oil resources off Alaska’s coast amount to about 27 billion barrels, according to government estimates, about the same as the original reserves of the giant Prudhoe Bay field discovered in 1968. That would be enough to satisfy American oil consumption for three years if every last drop could be pumped, which is unlikely.

It is a tantalizing bonanza for the Bush administration, which has strongly backed exploration to make up for a decline in domestic oil production; for oil companies, which are scouring the world to find new supplies; and for the Alaskan authorities, who need to keep the trans-Alaska pipeline flowing.

Oil off Alaska’s coast is hardly a new discovery. Soon after petroleum was found under the North Slope 40 years ago, companies began to suspect there might be oil under the Beaufort Sea and beyond.

Shell was one of the early pioneers of Arctic exploration in the following decades but it abandoned the region along with other companies after the oil price collapse of the mid-1980s. Five years ago, as the company sought new places to drill, Shell geologists dusted off their old seismic surveys. They identified a spot called Hammerhead, where the company had first drilled in 1985. They renamed it Sivulliq, meaning “the first one” in Inupiat, and decided to drill there. The area, about 15 miles, or 24 kilometers, offshore, is just opposite the western coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Shell moved aggressively to secure offshore holdings after 2005. The company paid about $80 million for leases in the Beaufort Sea, outspending its competitors.

“If you look at the Arctic, this is an incredibly important energy resource for the United States,” said Marvin Odum, Shell’s executive vice president for the Americas. “Going in with paced development is the right way to go.”

Odum said Shell was respectful of native rights and could safely drill in the Beaufort Sea without disturbing whales or whalers. The company offered to shut down drilling operations during the whaling season and said it would monitor migration routes with the latest equipment, including unmanned aerial drones.

In February, Shell obtained its drilling permit from the Minerals Management Service, a U.S. agency in charge of overseeing oil and gas production in government waters. That allowed it to bring in a small armada of ships and emergency craft to prepare for the drilling season, which lasts 90 to 120 days in the summer, when the Beaufort Sea is largely free of ice.

But in April, environmental groups sued the agency, which is part of the Interior Department, claiming it had not taken sufficient account of the risks, to whales and other species, of an oil spill.

The plaintiffs, later joined by the North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, won an injunction in July from a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which ordered Shell not to drill while the case was under review. In September, the company lost an important ruling, effectively ending this year’s drilling efforts.

Both sides will present their arguments Tuesday, and the court is expected to rule before the next drilling season begins.

Odum, whose responsibilities at Shell span the Western hemisphere, spent three days this summer as an observer on a hunt that captured two whales. The experience, he said, gave him a “visceral understanding” of whaling’s importance to native people, who refer to themselves interchangeably as Inupiat or Eskimos.

“The issue is how do we do this together in a way that does not interfere with the whale hunt,” Odum said. The company repainted one of its larger boats from bright orange to white and blue to make it less annoying to whales.

Despite the delays, Shell believes its exploration program will be allowed to resume next year. In a bid to reach out to the Inupiat, the company says it spent several million dollars in community development projects on the North Slope, though it declined to provide a specific figure. It gave $250,000, for example, to a science and engineering program at the University of Alaska geared toward native students.

But the company’s opponents argue that Shell moved into Alaska too aggressively, surprised the Inupiat with the scale of its operations and did a poor job of reaching out to them. “This lawsuit was a way of getting everyone’s attention and to get our concerns addressed,” Itta, the mayor, said.

Not everyone here sees Shell as a threat. Richard Glenn, vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the biggest Eskimo-run business, said the oil industry was vital to indigenous communities. The corporation runs a series of energy and construction businesses, and redistributes more than $200 million a year in profits to the Eskimos. “To say that the oil and gas industry succeeds does not mean that our culture fails,” Glenn said.

The controversy on the North Slope is the most visible sign of a new wave of oil development in Alaska. The Interior Department has been auctioning rights in the Beaufort Sea for five years, and it plans more sales there and in the Chukchi Sea.

Environmentalists are concerned about what they see as the unchecked expansion of the oil industry in Alaska. They said they saw no contradiction in their support for native rights, including whaling rights, and their long-term effort to protect whales and other marine species.

“The bowhead whale is an icon of cultural identity for the Inupiat people,” said Rachel James, a campaigner at Pacific Environment, one of the groups suing the government. “Our concerns are over human rights issues, access for subsistence users to resources, and the protection of endangered species.”

The bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus, is a member of the right whale family. Its skull is so powerful that it can crash through two feet of ice to reach the surface and breathe. Its numbers were greatly reduced in the era of commercial whaling, but it has made a modest recovery, and hunting by the Inupiat is not considered a threat to the species.

In Barrow, signs of the whales can be found everywhere. Their curved skulls are displayed in front of public buildings and along the town’s coastline. The high school mascot is a smiling, harpoon-wielding whaler.

“This is a community that depends on the Arctic Ocean for survival,” said Charles Hopson, a member of Barrow’s whaling commission.

The other day, an Eskimo named Lewis Brower took out a hunting knife, opened his refrigerator and lopped off a chunk of raw whale meat. “Nothing tastes like it,” Brower said.

Brower, whose family has had 32 years of uninterrupted success catching whales, is concerned that the community’s traditions might get lost amid an offshore drilling boom. “They’re coming to our lands and disturbing our ancestral way of life,” he said.

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