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

For the past six years, Itta has fought for balance, frustrating Shell when he felt the original plan brought in too many ships too fast and insisting they not come during whale hunting weeks. He argued for more safety procedures and higher emissions standards and met with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to push his points.

But later, after Shell made those concessions, he fought hard to prevent Eskimo groups from joining national environmental groups in court. “Ask yourself who is behind the decision to say no all the time?” he told the powerful Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in 2011. “Is it Iñupiats sitting down together and taking control of our position? Or is it people from the outside, who may have a different agenda? Maybe we need to listen to each other and politely ask the lawyers to leave the room.”

Throughout the struggle, he kept the respect of most parties, although some critics charged he was too interested in oil money. Alaska’s senator Mark Begich told me Itta is “a practical compromiser who doesn’t forget his roots as an Alaskan native. He’s done a lot to bring the parties together rather than pointing fingers.”

By winter 2011, after an EPA ruling blocked Shell’s plans, Itta was so upset over whether he could have done more that he had tears in his eyes. This year, Shell’s plan was guided to a large extent by Iñupiat suggestions and new Department of Interior rules. William Reilly, cochair of the former Deepwater Horizon Commission, called Shell’s precautions “the gold standard.”

Edward Itta is no longer mayor. With his second term ended, he cannot run again, so he plans to start a consulting firm, available to all. He spends more time at his small, cozy home, its walls hung with family photos. His greatest pleasure, after family, is to go into the wild. Yet he intends to stay involved in the great debate. “I’m not trying to stop the oil,” he said, “but we live at ground zero.”

Bob Reiss’s book, The Eskimo and the Oil Man, is just out from Hachette. More about the book on bobreiss.com.

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