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Why Environmentalists Should Support Oil Exploration In Alaska’s Arctic Waters

Why Environmentalists Should Support Oil Exploration In Alaska’s Arctic Waters


Christopher Helman Christopher Helman, Forbes Staff
This is a guest column by Bob Reiss. He is author of “The Eskimo and the Oil Man,” just published, for which he spent three years reporting with many trips to Alaska. Reiss has written for Smithsonian, Outside and Parade Magazines on the Arctic, and is the author of 18 books.

I never figured I’d end up siding with the oil company. When I started research on “The Eskimo and The Oil Man” – a book following the battle over offshore oil in the rapidly opening U.S. Arctic – in 2010, I saw no reason to change my mind. I’m green. I wrote a book blaming carbon emissions for global warming. I figured the oil company would turn out to be a bad guy.

Things didn’t turn out the way I thought.

As you read this the battle over Arctic oil heats up. Shell plans to send drill ships north this summer. The company has poured over $4 billion into buying undersea leases and preparation for work in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Shell believes that up to 27 billion barrels of oil – three times as much as has been taken from the Gulf of Mexico in the last two decades – lies off northern Alaska, and claims that energy can be extracted safely, will cut foreign dependence and create thousands of jobs.

Shell’s opponents – national environmental groups and some Eskimo ones – argue that drilling is premature in the pristine Arctic, that it is impossible to clean spilled oil in ice, that a blowout could destroy a 4,000 year old Inupiat culture and damage thousands of whales, seals and walrus. That drilling would be a travesty and therefore more basic science is needed before work should proceed.

“Save America from big oil,” says the e-mailed warning from the Sierra Club I just received. “We want to show Big Oil that our advocates won’t back down…Tell President Obama to stand up to Big Oil…some places are just too special to drill.”

And me? I spent a year with access to Shell’s executives in Alaska, and also to the life and policies of a respected Iñupiat Eskimo leader, the elected Mayor of the North Slope, who opposed Shell in the beginning and stopped them in court.

I feel guilty. I like the Sierra Club.

But my work on “The Eskimo and the Oil Man” made up my mind. The book calls for letting Shell drill limited exploratory wells this year. 

Here’s why.


Consider the North Slope, the Wyoming sized county taking up northern Alaska. Population 7,500, mostly Iñupiat Eskimos. An American Serengeti. Tens of thousands of freshwater lakes mark the vast tundra. Immense mountains thrust skyward in the south, and the region teems with hundreds of thousands of caribou, wolves, musk ox, polar and grizzly bears. Offshore swim the bowhead and grey whales. Skies fill with millions of migrating birds each spring. This is one of the last great unspoiled places on earth.

And there’s oil. Almost all of Alaska’s oil is found here, but so far it has come from the land, at Prudhoe Bay, which at peak flow supplied up to 25% of US demand. Alaska was so important to US energy interests then that when one state official ordered the operation theoretically “shut down” during a disaster drill in 1994, he instantly heard from the US energy Secretary in Washington, warning that national supply would suffer. Open it fast, he was told.

Now in 2012 Alaska’s land-based supply is drying up. The pipeline runs one-third full. For America that means greater foreign dependence. For the Inupiat people, who get practically all their local budget from taxing oil, it means that normal amenities found in other American towns; roads, rescue squads, schools and even plumbing, could disappear if the tax base evaporates.

This was what I learned from former North Slope Mayor Edward Itta, one of the two protagonists in “The Eskimo and The Oil Man.” Edward is a grandfather and whale hunter and a 66 year old who grew up in the pre-oil days, burning whale blubber for heat, chopping ice for drinking water the way some kids in lower 48 towns chop wood, being flown to a Bureau of Indian Affairs school because that was the only way to get a high school education there then.

Taxes on oil companies changed that, made Barrow – Edward’s home – more modern; with schools, a hospital, senior citizens home, restaurants…oil money even paid for lawyers and lobbyists to fight for Inupiat needs in Washington…but it doesn’t mean Edward loves big oil. As Mayor he sued to stop them in 2007, won a victory, and kept fighting Shell after that.

“Too much too fast, too soon,” Itta said, objecting to the number of ships, the emissions that might harm his people, the possibility of oil spills that could devastate the offshore area.

“That we failed initially I lay at the feet of Edward Itta,” one Shell exec told me.

Way into 2010, the year I started the book, Edward spent many sleepless nights agonizing over offshore drilling. It was no easy question. Like many Inupiats he supported onshore production, but the best spot for that, he believed, was in ANWR, federally protected wilderness that, he thinks, will never be opened to drilling.

So Edward decided uneasily that offshore drilling was inevitable, at least the exploratory kind, in which a company seeks to see if oil is really there.

The question was, how many concessions could he win from Shell first?

On the Shell side, I spent many hours with Pete Slaiby, head of their Alaska Venture. I sat in on meetings between Edward and Pete and traveled to see Shell ships in the Aleutian Islands. I met with both the Eskimo’s and the Oil Man’s Washington lobbyists and with scientists employed by both to study Arctic ecosystems. In their offices and private homes, I watched Shell staffers wrestle with changing federal requirements, uncoordinated policies, endless public hearings and court mandated or Department of Interior delays…an endless orgy of analysis after the leases had been sold during the Bush Administration and again been deemed viable under President Obama.

So I guess my change started with a sense of fair play. I began to wonder, why sell leases in the first place if the feds were going to make things so hard? After all, the feds were the ones who sought the money for the leases.

But of course fair play toward one company isn’t a reason to endanger a whole pristine ecosystem. The story of the opening Arctic went far beyond Shell’s plans, so I also spent 5 weeks on a Coast Guard icebreaker with scientists studying ice, and the seabed. I interviewed politicians and sat in on meetings at the Senate, talked with White House officials from both the Obama and Bush Administrations. A visit to Norwegian Arctic gas operations showed how that country oversees Arctic extraction, and why parties in the US who can’t agree on anything here all like the way Norway deals with Arctic oil.

After awhile I realized I’d stumbled onto a story of compromise. Shell was making concession after concession, some demanded for good reasons by the Department of Interior, some made to meet the logical fears of Edward and North Slope whaling Captains, some because other agencies ordered them.

Shell shrank the number of ships coming, agreed to suspend operations during whale hunting weeks, offered to let federal inspectors remain on board 24 hours a day, and promised to carry away drill cuttings (muds) that otherwise would have been discharged into the ocean. Shell met EPA emission requirements and will soon test a new cap and containment system designed to stop a blowout and gather up spilled oil.

The company did this because they were forced to. They didn’t change out of innate goodness. But the point is, they changed.

“Not doing it here right would spoil our reputation around the world,” Shell President Marvin Odum told Edward.

Are these guarantees? Can you legislate perfection? Of course not. But by early 2011 Shell’s modifications had caused Edward to drop legal opposition, and then the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission – the whaling Captains organization – did too. They remained uneasy with the notion of offshore drilling, but they felt that Shell had come a good way from where they started out.

Later I heard the okay for Shell’s limited exploratory plan only from other sources too. The EPA cleared the clean air permit. The Coast Guard’s head of Alaska operations told me he was satisfied with Shell’s plan. William Reilly, co-chair of the former Deepwater Horizon Commission, and Chairman emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund – opined that Shell had been “jerked around.” He called Shell’s oil spill precautions “the gold standard” and said he’d urged President Obama to let the company drill.

So let’s make clear what the argument is about this year. “Exploratory” drilling means that no platforms get built, no production occurs. Drill ships enter the region during the ice free season, cap the wells after work is done, stay away during whaling weeks and sail away before winter ice arrives.

The purpose of the work is to find out if the sea of oil is really there.

Afterwards, only if Shell finds oil, about ten more years of work will be required before the company can extract it, and then only if it meets requirements for necessary permits. Lots of requirements under lots of laws. To do that Shell will have to develop new equipment and demonstrate that it can safely extract hydrocarbons from the seabottom, not just find them.

But what’s the point of spending tens of millions of dollars developing that new equipment before they even know if anything is there?

Bottom line? If Shell finds anything this year scientists will have time to conduct research on the ecosystem long before any production is approved. North Slope, NOAA and oil company scientists are already working together under new agreements to study conditions. Results will be made public. If it turns out that production is too dangerous, then federal agencies will stop it or – as in the past – Inupiat groups and environmentalists will be there to block it in court.

So that’s why I changed my mind.

Opponents who stopped Shell initially did a good thing. And they’re still right to promote better science in the Arctic. But while they do, let’s reward a company that made concessions. Or what’s the point of pretending that any concessions will ever be enough?

In short, as a Green I believe it important to balance environmental protection with development and I had to face a fundamental truth about that in writing “The Eskimo and the Oil Man.”  Balance means you have to allow drilling at times, not just always say no.


In many ways what happens in America’s Arctic this summer will be indicative of whether the US is meeting the challenges and opportunities of a whole opening region, or whether, as one Coast Guard Admiral told me a couple years ago, “If this was a ballgame, the US wouldn’t be on the fields, in the stands, or even in the stadium.”

“We’re last in the race,” he said.

America’s Arctic challenges go far beyond oil. The Northwest Passage, once iced over trade route around Canada, is opening. Already tourist ships regularly go through, and commodities shipping is expected to follow. But presently the Coast Guard and Navy are unprepared to deal with sinkings, ship spills, moving whole fleets in the Arctic. Russian bombers have taken to buzzing US Air space off Alaska for the first time since the cold war, and Arctic countries are starting to claim vast new areas of Arctic seabottom under a treaty that the US has not ratified, but every other Arctic country has. Russia operates roughly 18 icebreakers. The U.S. has one. Other Arctic nations are more actively exploring hydrocarbon possibilities.

When it comes to national security, the US Navy recently held war games anticipating upcoming challenges in the north including terrorist attacks. One Admiral told me it is possible that the entire Arctic ocean could be ice free in summers within 60 years.

A whole new ocean on earth is opening up.

Whether or not Shell Oil drills this summer, “there’s no theory that brings the ice back,” Mead Treadwell, Lt. Governor of Alaska, former head of the US Arctic Research Commission, told me.

The Obama Administration has begun recognizing the importance of the Arctic, trying to coordinate preparation for an opening region. Still, questions loom. Will the U.S. meet the challenge of the high north, or miss out on the opportunity? There is still time to explore rational development and put adequate safeguards in place before the challenges get too big, before rivals pull ahead.

When it comes to Shell in the Arctic, this summer is a case in point.


Bob Reiss is author of “The Eskimo and the Oil Man,” just published. He’s written for Smithsonian, Outside and Parade Magazines on the Arctic, and is the author of 18 books. More on Bob Reiss at You can buy the book here.


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