The Cost of Drilling: Oil in Alaska

To drill or not to drill? As debate over energy rages, one inspired leader fights for balance.

By Bob Reiss from Reader's Digest Magazine | June 2012

The Cost of Drilling: Oil in AlaskaCourtesy Bill HessItta lets loose at Kivgiq, a celebration of a bountiful season.
At first glance you wouldn’t think Itta, a soft-spoken grandfather married to a retired schoolteacher, would scare an oil giant. At five feet, ten inches tall, with a hearing aid in one ear, he’s modest looking.

But Itta was one of the most powerful rural mayors in the United States, heading the Wyoming-sized county called North Slope Borough. If Itta considered offshore drilling dangerous to the marine mammals that fed his people, he’d sue.

“The terms by which oil will flow to the U.S. will be set in part by North Slope residents. That’s how important Itta is,” Mead Treadwell, then head of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, told me.

On that April day, when the oilmen asked Itta to tell his people that an Arctic blowout was less likely than in the Gulf because shallower waters off the North Slope meant less pressure below the surface, the mayor got mad.

“You always want me to explain,” he snapped. “That’s not good enough anymore. Not one of you has told my people, ‘Here’s the difference between what happened in the Gulf and what we want to do here.’”

The executives stiffened. “We’ll take responsibility,” Odum said.

After they left, Itta was reassured yet uneasy. He eyed a painting on the wall: an Eskimo hunter stranded on an ice floe, all alone because, Itta said, “He made a wrong decision.”

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