Alaskan Inuit support oil drilling in the ANWR

Pro-development stances pits them against environmentalists, Gwich’in Indians, Ottawa.



Inuit on Alaska’s North Slope have found themselves at the crux of an international clash over oil and the polar environment.

The battlefield is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a vast plain of pristine tundra along Alaska’s north coast, rich in polar bears, birds, caribou — and crude oil.

The Inuit want the oil.

While environmentalists have dubbed the region “the Arctic Serengeti” for its ecological diversity, geologists say the permafrost is underlain with 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil, plus trillions of cubic feet of natural gas — making it one of the largest fossil fuel reserves on the continent.

Under U.S. law, the 7.7 million hectare refuge is protected from oil exploration and development. But over the last decade, Alaskan Inuit have tirelessly lobbied the president and Congress to change the law.

During his eight-year term in office, U.S. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, stood steadfastly with the environmentalists and opposed the Inuit appeals.

But when the U.S. presidency changes hands Jan. 20, the Inuit will suddenly have an ally in the White House. Incoming Republican President George Bush, a former oil-company executive, says drilling in the refuge will be part of his strategy to reduce America’s dependence on foreign-oil imports.

To the 8,000 Inuit of the North Slope — some of whom live in the refuge — oil means money.

The area’s Inuit birthright organization, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, owns the subsurface drilling rights in the refuge, which it could sell to the likes of E on and British Petroleum. The corporation also stands to benefit by providing oil companies with contracted services ranging from engineering to road-construction to catering.

“ASRC is optimistic,” said Mario Gamboa, the corporation’s public relations specialist, in a statement to the Nunatsiaq News.

“It is our judgement, based on close personal experience, that we can have balanced and carefully regulated oil exploration and development on our private lands and on the public lands of ANWR.”

But this won’t be a rags-to-riches story. By Arctic standards, the North Slope Inuit are already rich.

For 25 years the Inuit on the Arctic coast have reaped the bounty of petroleum development west of the refuge, at the Kuparuk and Prudhoe Bay fields, which pump more oil than anywhere else in North America.

Each year, the oil companies that operate those fields pay nearly $600 million in taxes to the regional government, called the North Slope Borough. That sum comes to around $65,000 per resident, and goes to an array of lavish facilities and services.

And since its founding in the early 1970s the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation has become the wealthiest company based in Alaska, largely off of oil-field leasing and contracting. It has paid out an average of $600 per year in dividends to its beneficiaries, and employs scores of North Slope residents.

Inuit vs. Indians

Even if the North Slope Inuit have won the oil-development battle in Washington, they still face vehement opposition from the Gwich’in Indians of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and interior Alaska — and opposition, as well, from Ottawa.

The Gwich’in, who include residents of Inuvik, Ft. McPherson and Tsiigehtchic in the Mackenzie River Delta, fear oil drilling could imperil one of their key sources of country food: the Porcupine caribou herd.

The 200,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd roam across the Alaska-Canada border and constitute one of the largest remaining caribou populations in the world. In the summer, they calve in the narrow coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — right where the proposed oil wells would be drilled.

Last week, Ottawa weighed in on the debate, siding with the Gwich’in and declaring its opposition to drilling for oil.

“I’m utterly opposed,” said David Anderson, the minister of the environment, in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen.

“We can only keep pointing out that this is an international herd of animals. We have a long tradition of concern where animals cross the borders.”

Scientists disagree on the effects that oil development has on caribou. On one hand, a recent study by Alaskan biologists showed that at the gargantuan Prudhoe Bay oilfield, the local caribou herd is bigger than at any time since oil development began in the early 1970s.

But the same study also showed that the oil field — with its tangle of roads, pipelines and airstrips — has indeed forced female caribou to shift their calving grounds away from the development.

Similar shifts on the more limited calving grounds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be cataclysmic, some scientists suggest.

Inuit on the North Slope don’t back the oil companies completely. They’ve consistently opposed offshore drilling in the Beaufort Sea, where they fear a spill could kill the bowhead whales that are critical to their subsistence culture.

But they insist that development on-shore, in the wildlife refuge, can be done responsibly.

“We know that our people will always be here, even after oil development has come and gone,” Gamboa said.

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