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 AlaskaPhotograph by Robbie McClaranItta on the ice at whaling camp, waiting for bowheads to appear.
Offshore, the city’s 38 whaling crews were camped out on the ice, awaiting migrating bowheads. Their white tents blended in, and they spoke quietly so as not to scare off whales. Their people had been hunting and fishing here for 4,000 years—wildlife provides over half of the diet of local Iñupiat residents.

“I’ll work with Shell, but they try my patience,” Itta told me and described fears that kept him awake most nights. “What if it’s me,” he said, “who allows oil to flow, and there is an accident? If bowheads disappear, so will Iñupiat culture.”

But the flip side was, what if he stopped the oil. “My people would go back to 40 years ago,” he said. Itta walked an ice tightrope. Money for health care, housing, and schools came from taxes on oil companies. “I shudder to think what would happen if that [income] stopped,” he said.

This summer, the battle over Alaskan drilling will make headlines. For the past two years, I’ve watched the story unfold. At first, I thought Itta and the oilmen would remain antagonists.

What happened by 2012 was far more complicated.

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