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 McClaranAt home in Barrow, Itta says family is his greatest pleasure.
When Itta was born in 1945, Alaska was not even a state yet. Barrow was an old whaling village with 360 residents. Homes lacked running water. Travel was by dogsled. Plastic pails called honey buckets served as repositories for human waste.

Itta’s family burned whale blubber for heat. As a boy, he chopped lake ice with a hatchet for drinking water, hauling it home by dogsled. After attending a Bureau of Indian Affairs elementary school, he—like any Eskimo needing a high school education then—was flown to a boarding school where matrons watched over children who cried themselves to sleep.

“I remember the first time I saw trees. Cars. A strange alien world,” Itta told me.

After oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, Iñupiat leaders fought hard so they could tax its infrastructure. By the time Itta came home after serving in the Navy, oil money was starting to flow. Itta worked in the oil fields, then as a backhoe driver and director of public works for the mayor he unseated in 2005.

By 2010, oil revenues poured over $250 million a year into North Slope coffers. A drive around Barrow today shows the difference between old and new. There’s a beautiful high school, a hospital going up, and a rescue squad equipped with helicopters and airplanes. There’s a fine home for the elderly and a well-stocked library. There are pizza and Japanese and Mexican restaurants; and taxi drivers from Thailand, Pakistan, and Korea. Plows keep gravel roads clear. There are streetlights and cell phones.

Oil money also enabled the borough to hire Washington lawyers to fight for local needs and scientists to study wildlife. The mayor’s office sits in a modern building featuring up-to-date computers, phones, meeting rooms, and a kitchenette.

At the same time, rapid change brought problems, Itta felt: high alcoholism, suicide, and drug abuse rates.

Today, oil extraction remains the biggest divider among the Iñupiat people, and has created conflicts between families and friends. Almost everyone supports onshore drilling, but the most promising area for that, they say, is in the protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So most North Slopers believe that offshore exploration is inevitable.

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