The explosion thousands of miles away brought the Eskimo and oil execs together. With BP’s drill rig in flames, dead workers in the water, and gushing ooze spreading toward Gulf of Mexico shores, Marvin Odum, the president of Shell Oil, was worrying about a little-known Iñupiat leader named Edward Itta—who, in turn, fretted about his people and their future.
“What if that happens here?” Itta said to me of the BP debacle. It was April 2010, and I was in Barrow, Alaska, to research my book The Eskimo and the Oil Man, about how the relationship between 64-year-old Itta and Shell, one of the biggest corporations on earth, may hold a key to fuel prices you pay at home.
Barrow is as far away as you can get in the United States from Gulf oil fields, yet it is here that the struggle to balance energy needs and environmental protection is felt more keenly than almost anywhere else. The city of about 4,500 lies at the top of North America, at the icy junction of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Shell believes there could be up to three times as much oil off Northern Alaska as has been extracted from the Gulf in the past 22 years, energy that could lessen foreign dependence—which is why, as Deepwater Horizon burned, Odum took a private jet from Houston to calm Itta. The company hoped to explore for oil off Alaska that summer, near Eskimo hunting areas. But executives feared that Itta might block their $3.5 billion investment. He’d done it before.
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.”
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.
Alaska’s North Slope is an Arctic Serengeti, a gorgeous tundra dotted by tens of thousands of elliptical freshwater lakes, a land so vast that flying above it, looking down, humans seem an afterthought. Caribou herds in the hundreds of thousands roam freely, as do polar bears in the north and grizzlies farther south, near mountains of the Brooks Range. There are wolves and foxes, and spring skies are blanketed by millions of migrating birds. Tens of thousands of ivory-tusked walrus, seals, and bowhead and grey whales swim offshore.
Here, during the cold loveliness of winter, falling snow has the consistency of sand and clings to rooftops and stop signs in Barrow. Emerald streaks of aurora borealis cross star-drenched skies.
And in summer, during full-time daylight, bright Arctic flowers bloom. Immense snowy owls scan the tundra from hummocks. Mouselike lemmings scamper in the high grass. Fish and birds grow fat. Front yards are filled with drying racks for fur or fish; boats; sticks for probing the sea ice to make sure it is solid; snowmobiles.
And then there’s the oil.
Lots of oil.
In the old days, it bubbled up as dark seeps. Then commercial quantities were announced in 1968, and oil gushed from beneath the land, in Prudhoe Bay, 200 miles east of Itta’s home, to flow south through an 800-mile pipeline to the terminal at Valdez and on to the rest of America. By the 1980s—peak flow—up to 25 percent of U.S. oil came from that pipeline.
But now the pipeline runs only one third full and is in danger of shutting down from lack of supply. At the same time, government scientists estimate that up to 22 percent of all undiscovered oil and gas on earth lies in polar regions, much of it off Alaska. That’s why Shell paid more than $2 billion for leases there and tried, for the past five years, to drill a few exploratory wells. First, they were stopped by Itta’s lawyers, teamed with other native and environmental groups. Then the holdup came from federal agencies, cautious after the Gulf explosion.
In 2005, when Itta ran for mayor, he opposed all Arctic offshore drilling. In many ways his life until then was preparation for the fight. The world he grew up in was so different from today that one of his friends told me it’s as if he’d telescoped 150 years of history into one lifetime.
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.
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.