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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Oil's Future in Alaska

Air Date: Week of

Oil has been surging down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for twenty years now. But today, the flow from Prudhoe Bay is starting to slow and the oil industry is fixing its sights on a huge, yet little known piece of federal land called the National Petroleum Reserve The Reserve's 28 million acres have gone largely unnoticed since they were set aside as a possible source of fuel for the Navy 75 years ago. Now, the federal government is considering selling oil and gas leases there. The decision could have profound impacts for the region: home to millions of migratory animals, and thousands of eskimos, whose lives are being transformed by oil revenues. Living On Earth's Peter Thomson reports.


KNOY: Oil has been surging down the Trans-Alaska pipeline for 20 years now. The decision to open the valves capped a decade of national debate about the wisdom of drilling in one of the most fragile environments on Earth. Since then, billions of barrels of crude have been pumped from the fields of Prudhoe Bay and elsewhere in the Alaskan Arctic. Today the flow from these fields is starting to slow, so the oil industry and the state of Alaska, so dependent on oil, are looking for new territory to plant well heads. The industry has long had its eye on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but political opposition has kept it closed to drilling. So oil companies are fixing their sights on a huge yet little known piece of federal land called the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, and they're getting a friendlier reception. The reserve's 28 million acres have gone largely unnoticed since they were set aside as a possible source of fuel for the Navy 75 years ago. Now, the Federal Government is considering selling oil and gas leases there. The decision could have profound impacts for the region, home to millions of migratory animals and thousands of Eskimos whose lives are being transformed by oil revenues. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson traveled to the land of oil and ice and has this report.

(Brushing sounds, ice chips falling)

THOMSON: Shimmering ice crystals fall as Dora Itta brushes against a frost- covered ceiling and steps off a wooden ladder onto a frozen dirt floor littered with big white sacks.

ITTA: This is the caribou, the legs, the ribs, the hind legs. And the geese, nuguluk we call them.

THOMSON: Six gray geese lie among the sacks, their necks frozen into graceful arcs. Scattered by the rough walls are a few plump,silver-brown fish stiff as two-by-fours.

What do you call this?

ITTA: Cigaluok. Cigaluok. Ice cellar. There is a passage up there where you can see the sky and you put the wood up there so it don't melt from the top. It's dug all around in here; we can walk around it.

THOMSON: The ice cellar is dug 10 feet into the permafrost, the frozen earth beneath the surface of the tundra. Above, the warm Arctic sun has melted last winter's snow cover. But down here it's always winter. Dora tells me this is where her family stores its catch from the short Arctic summers to help them get through the long months of cold and dark ahead. The Ittas are Inupiat Eskimos, the native residents of the northernmost fringe of the United States, the stark treeless plain between Alaska's Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean, known as the Arctic Slope. It's one of the world's very last frontiers, where the landscape and the wildlife are largely unchanged since the appearance of humans. And the Inupiat are among the last people in the country to still depend largely on hunting and fishing to survive. But the land around this camp may also harbor millions of barrels of oil, and a new effort to open the land for oil drilling has put the future of the Inupiat's subsistence lifestyle in question.

(Footfalls on ice; fade to wind)

THOMSON: Emerging from the ice cellar, Dora and I are brushed by a stiff wind blowing off the polar ice cap just 20 miles to the north. It seems to have scoured the landscape clean: not a road, no power line, or even a hill break the horizon. We're deep within the largest piece of Federal land in the country, 36,000 square miles of tundra and mountains known as the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. The area was set aside when oil seeps were found here in the 1920s, but it's been mostly left alone since. The only signs of civilization here are the Itta's 3 tiny summer cabins, and 2 helicopters: the one I arrived on, and another one that's just landing.

(A helicopter whirrs)

ITTA: Amy, where did you put my camera?

THOMSON: Dora's niece rushes off to find her camera. It's the Governor of Alaska and the Secretary of the Interior trailing a band of advisors, security people, and journalists. Governor Tony Knowles has asked Secretary Bruce Babbitt to open this area to oil and gas development, and the Secretary wants to see it and meet its people before he makes a decision.

(People milling and talking.)

N. ITTA: Hi! Welcome, welcome to see! To see anything! They just got those fish this morning.

THOMSON: Dora's father Noah Itta beams as he shows Governor Knowles big fish fillets and huge racks of caribou ribs hung up to dry in the sun.

N. ITTA: Get my wife. Molly!

THOMSON: He and his wife Molly are the elders of the family, and they are eager to show off their hunting and fishing skills. Noah finds Molly with Secretary Babbitt filleting a whitefish pulled from a nearby river.

(Scraping sounds)

M. ITTA: It's kind of dry, this little fish.

BABBITT: Now you just hang them here for how long to dry?

M. ITTA: Depends on our sun.


M. ITTA: You just cut it like this.

(Cutting sounds)

THOMSON: The Secretary's party has come here because of concerns that oil drilling nearby could disrupt the habitat of the wildlife that the Inupiat depend on. Molly for one tells me she isn't worried about the animals.

M. ITTA: They come every spring from somewhere. It never changes. The oil companies are flying around; they come every year. Every year. I don't know what will happen but I know for sure they're careful about everything like Prudhoe Bay. That's what they've been saying. We believe them.

(Voices milling)

JOYCE: Our goal is the same as all of yours: protect the critters, protect the habitat...

THOMSON: In a windowless conference room 100 miles to the east, biologist Mike Joyce talks excitedly to Secretary Babbitt's entourage about the oil industry's progress in the Arctic environment. Mr. Joyce works for the oil giant ARCO.

JOYCE: Where do they nest? Where do they brood their young?...

THOMSON: The conference room is in a huge orange building at ARCO's Kuparak oil field. It's near Prudhoe Bay on a part of the Arctic Slope that's owned by the state. The sprawling complex reminds me of a swath of industrial New Jersey. But ARCO representatives say it hasn't really disrupted wildlife. Still, they say they're learning how to do even better.

JOYCE: ... this location, but we understand the critters' sensitivities then, what stresses critters, better than we have in the past. And therefore, we know how to modify our design to minimize whatever the stress might be. Birds, fish, caribou...

THOMSON: ARCO officials certainty invoke the symbols of environmental sensitivity. They speak of critters, and wear flannel and jeans. The walls here feature photos of wildlife and smiling kids. But the company says it's not just PR. Ronnie Chappell is an ARCO spokesman.

CHAPPELL: There has been some significant change in the oil industry in Alaska. In the old days pipelines were at ground level, impeding caribou passage. Today we've raised them a distance of 5 or 6 feet, so that they can walk easily beneath them. Our Alpine development will be a discharge-free development. Our ability to drill longer-reach wells means that we need fewer drill sites, so technology has allowed us to reduce the number of impacts and the size of those impacts.

THOMSON: ARCO is already at work on a state of the art oilfield just outside the National Petroleum Reserve, which the company says will affect 80% less land than its early fields here. Governor Tony Knowles, who watched the ARCO presentation with rapt attention, says we don't have to choose between oil and a pristine Arctic environment.

KNOWLES: We don't have to split the baby. This is not a Solomon decision. It's not an either-or; we can really have it both. We also know that when these oilfields are finished, they will be dismantled and there would be no trace of any activity, because on ice pads rather than gravel pads you can conduct the entire drilling operation and the production operation and you never disturb it.

THOMSON: All these assurances have helped convince the native government here to support drilling in the petroleum reserve.

(Some kind of horn)

CARROLL: Well we encourage it --

THOMSON: I meet Marie Carroll in a brightly-lit aircraft hangar in Barrow, the region's largest town. She's the chief administrative officer of the North Slope Borough, which includes 8 Eskimo towns scattered over 90,000 square miles of tundra.

CARROLL: We've had decline in our revenue sources. You know, Prudhoe Bay is declining.

THOMSON: Ninety percent of the borough's budget comes from taxes on oil industry property. And in the past 20 years, that money has transformed these communities. No more sawed huts and dog teams for these Eskimos; they've got schools, health services, electricity, sanitation. And a search and rescue squad to fly people out of remote areas.

CARROLL: We have Lear jet and 2 Bell helicopters. Before we got this department, we used to lose several people a year, and now it's pretty rare to lose anybody from exposure.

(Horn continues)

THOMSON: Rather than being at odds with subsistence practices, Marie Carroll tells me, oil development has actually allowed her community to maintain hunting traditions, which might otherwise have withered away.

Outside of the pockets of human settlement, there are no roads in the Alaskan Arctic. I get around here the same way everyone else does. By air.

(A helicopter whirrs)

THOMSON: Rising above the tundra, striking patterns emerge from the featureless green and brown. Bizarre hexagons formed by the constant freezing and thawing of the waterlogged land. Meandering rivers whose constantly shifting courses leave echoes of green scars and long curving blue lakes. In the distance, a single speck of brown sprints across the landscape, then a half dozen, then suddenly thousands of caribou fleeing our chopper. Or perhaps the hordes of relentless mosquitos. There are millions of animals in the National Petroleum Reserve. But even from the air we're lucky to catch a glimpse of some of them. The land is so vast and the wildlife so spread out that you can travel miles and not see a single creature.


THOMSON: On the ground, the quiet is overwhelming.

(Footfalls continue)

THOMSON: But it belies the abundance of life. Tiny plants and lichen support insects and migratory song birds, and mammals from ground squirrels to caribou. These in turn are food for raptors, grizzly bears, and wolves. The Arctic coast and the thousands of rivers and lakes host millions of birds, including several endangered species, which fly thousands of miles to breed and feed in the intense Arctic summer. Offshore are polar bears, seals, walruses, and whales. By some reckonings, the wildlife populations in the petroleum reserve may be even more important than those in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area far to the east. And the most crucial habitat happens to be in the same area as some of the best oil prospects. The Interior Department has begun a study of the potential environmental impact of drilling in the petroleum reserve. Wildlife biologist Dave Yokel, who is working on the study, tells me there's reason for concern about at least some species.

YOKEL: When the geese are molting, they're flightless for about a 3 to 4-week period. If they are disturbed at all, they will head out into the lakes. When they're doing this escape behavior, they can't be spending any time feeding, and it's very important at this time when they're molting to get the energy they need to molt, as well as store up fat for the migration south for the winter time. Also, the caribou herd, the cows that have calves are sensitive to human disturbance; that's already been shown in the Prudhoe Bay and Kaparak oil fields, where there's been a shift of use over the last several years.

THOMSON: And Dave Yokel tells me some of the animals here are already being stressed by development in other parts of their range. So any habitat disturbance inside the petroleum reserve could just compound problems elsewhere.

(Footfalls continue)

WOMAN: Good morning everyone. Welcome, visitors. Residents of Atkusuk let us pray... (In native language, prayers)

THOMSON: In a wood-paneled community hall in the village of Atkasuk, a standing room only crowd briefly puts aside coffee and chewy Eskimo doughnuts to pause for an invocation. Residents have come to talk about oil drilling with Secretary Babbitt.

MAN: On the chance of NPRA does get open, how is the Federal Government going to guarantee that we will be hunting caribou 20, 30, 40 years down the line, fishing in our rivers 20, 30, 40 years down the line, the same that we are doing now?

BABBITT: Very important question, because development tends to bring more development. And when the flood starts, your ability to control it may become a very, very big issue. There's a lot of concern about how much activity you can have on the landscape before the caribou disappear. Before the polar bears disappear. Before the nesting seasons of the migratory birds are disrupted. I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I do know that for 500 years we've made the wrong decisions to the great detriment of hundreds of Indian tribes. And this is one of the very few remaining places in the world where the link between the natives and the subsistence way of life is still strong. And so the questions he asks I think are very, very important.

(Another man speaks in native language)

THOMSON: It's a powerful speech, one the Secretary delivers at several villages on the North Slope. He warns against blindly accepting the promises of the oil interests. But ultimately, he can give no guarantees. It's in these smaller villages, more dependent on the land and away from the seat of Eskimo power in Barrow, where you hear the greatest concern about oil drilling.

(Children playing, laughing and yelling)

THOMSON: In a school playground in the village of Nuiqsut, kids chase each other around and dangle from the monkey bars. It's 10 o'clock at night and bright as noon. Nuiqsut is on the coastal crescent of the National Petroleum Reserve that holds the most promise for oil, and it's the closest town to the fields already operating on state lands.

(Yelling continues)

THOMSON: Three boys run right up to me and my microphone. They're Cyrus Nukabigak, Clayton Kaigelak, and Robert John Botfish.

So listen, what do you guys think of this oil drilling business?

BOYS (one after the other): I don't know.

BOY 1: Maybe I should move to Anchorage.

BOY 2: Maybe I'll take a vacation.

THOMSON: You mean that having money from oil will let you take a vacation? Or you want to get away from the drilling?

BOY 2: No. Get away from the drilling.

BOY 3: Too poison.

BOY 1: I'm going to miss catching caribou. We're going to be poor.

(Laughing and playing continues in background)

AHTUANGARUAK: ... and it hasn't occurred ...

THOMSON: Inside, in the school's gym, the town's adults are debating the future of the kids outside. Elders with colorful fur-lined boots and parkas sit up front. Younger people sit further back, wearing sweatshirts and jeans. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a young mother of 5 with deep, serious eyes, is speaking to her neighbors.

AHTUANGARUAK: We don't need all those pipelines out there. That's for sure. We've already been hurt by many of those developments out there. When our people cannot go to their cellar and take out the food from the land and provide for their family, it's not given by the oil companies. There has not been one benefit for the suffering this community has gone through with this development.

THOMSON: Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, fears her community will be surrounded by pipelines, and the caribou pushed further away. Even having to debate it, she tells me, is a burden. With strong feelings on both sides, it's hard for some residents to share their hunting catch with their neighbors, as is Eskimo custom.


MAN: We'll have one more.

(Another man speaks in native language)

THOMSON: The meeting lasts late into the evening. As things wind down I meet Thomas Napageak, an elder and a former mayor who spoke in favor of drilling.

NAPAGEAK: We're not opposed to development, but that development should take place with our involvement.

THOMSON: Thomas Napageak speaks hopefully of badly needed jobs. But as we talk, his tone slowly changes.

(Crowd and conversations in the background)

NAPAGEAK: I like to try to look at it as a positive, although there's the impact well, just take a look at the young people. Like my boy, my granddaughter. What will become of them. Should oil be striked, money starts coming in. Will they continue to hang onto their cultural lifestyle? Or will money distract them?

THOMSON: It sounds like you're willing to take that gamble under certain conditions.

NAPAGEAK: We know it's going to happen. So the best thing for us to do is get involved early on. Prudhoe was discovered and we weren't involved, and that's just the fact.

THOMSON: Do you believe that they can develop in a way that the new fields will not have an effect on your subsistence?

NAPAGEAK: The impact on our subsistence has been noticeable. I mean (sighs, pauses) it's hard. I mean, it's hard, it's hard. The caribous are migrating about 20 miles from their usual migratory path now. Further south. The bowhead whales that we go for, I mean that's one area that we have to watch very closely. Fish that migrate from the Mucatsin Delta, we have to watch those. This is some of the things that kind of scares me, you know, when you think about it. But with local involvement, I'm pretty sure that things can go a long ways for the native people. That's all I can say.

THOMSON: Ambivalence about developing the petroleum reserve runs deep here. But most at least agree on one thing: that the study period is too short. The public comment period closes in October and a decision is due by next August. And the question of timing looms large. Why the proposal to open the reserve now, critics wonder, when there's plenty of oil, and when President Clinton is pushing Americans to burn less oil to reduce the risk of climate change? Some suggest the answer is political. Governor Tony Knowles is a Democrat in a Conservative state. A decision to allow drilling could give his reelection campaign next year a big boost. But Governor Knowles and Secretary Babbitt say the study has nothing to do with the Governor's campaign. Secretary Babbitt says it's just the right time to look at the NPRA.

BABBITT: I think it really began in the debate a couple of years ago over the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, in which I consistently said we should not invade the wildlife refuge. It's been set aside. There is a long unexplored horizon which stretches west from Prudhoe Bay area. And what's happened in the intervening time is that the oil companies have begun to make discoveries moving west. And that takes us right up to the front door of the National Petroleum Reserve.

THOMSON: But the Secretary insists that the fix is not in for oil drilling in the reserve. He says there's a lot more involved than the need for oil, jobs, or tax revenue. Wildlife laws and treaties, pollution laws, and subsistence needs must all be considered. Environmentalists would add one more item to the list: the value of the land left alone for its own sake. There are always other sources of energy and revenue, they say, but wilderness is almost gone. Some propose making most of the area a wildlife refuge with native hunting rights. And they urge the Eskimos to pursue eco-tourism and other more sustainable businesses. Inupiat leaders are working on other development projects, but they say their land is so remote and the climate so severe that at least for now oil is all they've got. There's even some subtle resentment here that the decision on the petroleum reserve will be made in Washington rather than by the Inupiat themselves. It's their future that's at stake, after all, and it used to be their land, too. But they have no legal claim to it any more. All native Alaskan land claims were settled long ago.

(People speaking in native language)

N. ITA: Shochlak. This guy's name is Shochlak.

THOMSON: Back at the Ita's camp, Noah is talking with some of his visitors in the warmth of a gas heater inside the cabin. Noah's English isn't great, so a friend helps out.

N. ITA: [Speaks in native tongue]

FRIEND: His concern about not, you know, just not to say no to oil drilling, is not good. Industry is not the predator against wildlife here and caribou or geese.

THOMSON: But even if the oil companies can drill in the tundra without disturbing its wildlife, another more ominous threat looms. In recent years the climate in the Arctic seems to be changing. Spring is coming earlier. Inupiat tell me that the winter ice sheet is breaking up earlier. And it already seems to be affecting wildlife. Scientists say the polar regions are the most sensitive to global climate change, and they say the climate is changing because we're burning so much fossil fuel. Like the oil that's already being pumped out from under the Eskimos' homeland.

(Harsh winds)

THOMSON: Outside the cabin the pale green carpet of tundra seems endless and eternal. Noah's 13-year-old granddaughter Jamie has been watching all the hubbub. I ask her what she makes of it. She says she's not quite sure. She worries about new oil development. But she also knows what it would mean to her community.

JAMIE: I wish that we can have both, so our oil can't hurt anything [phrase?]. Where we can still have jobs and stuff. But it doesn't work that way, the way I see it.

THOMSON: If you had to choose one, either the oil or the old ways with the subsistence hunting, what would you take?

JAMIE: Umm the oil, I guess.

MOLLY: This is my campfire. When the mosquitos are really bad I build a fire and scare them away.

THOMSON: Nearby, Molly Ita is back at the filleting table with Secretary Babbitt, wielding her bone-handled knife on another fish.

BABBITT: What do you call these?

MOLLY: Ulu. Ulu. Yeah, uh huh.

BABBITT: And when you're angry at your husband?

MOLLY: (Laughs) No, I don't use this. I use my hands. (Group laughter)

THOMSON: Molly Ita is in her element. The little cluster of people in a sea of green under a 24-hour sun. The smell of willow smoke in the air, today's catch of fish and caribou drying in the breeze. Miles from anywhere, but connected by a lifeline powered by oil. And hoping that things will never change.

MOLLY: I don't know the future. We're going to eat this right now. We're trying to enjoy our last years of life. (Laughs) Here. We enjoy it here real good in the camp.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in the National Petroleum Reserve west of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

(Spirited conversation among the group of people; fade to native singing)

KNOY: Next month Peter Thomson brings us a story unfolding in the austere plains and unnamed mountains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A controversy there over oil development is pitting the Inupiat Eskimos against their native neighbors, the Gwitchen Indians. It's the second part of his series on oil and ice.



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