Washington

An issue as clear as oil

Andrew Phillips March 12 2001
Washington

An issue as clear as oil

Andrew Phillips March 12 2001

An issue as clear as oil

Washington

Andrew Phillips

If ever there was a clear-cut issue of right versus wrong, good versus bad, surely this must be it. On one side: Big Oil, most Republicans and the new administration of George W. Bush. On the other side: well-meaning environmentalists, Democrats, natives with colourful names and thousands of adorable caribou. Oh, and the Canadian government.

What divides them has quickly become the hottest environmental issue in Washington. The question: whether to allow oil and gas exploration in the pristine Alaska wilderness known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR (pronounced, appropriately enough, AN-War). The battle lines were sharply drawn last week. First, Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski introduced legislation to allow drilling in a small part of the refuge, a New Brunswick-sized tract in the states remote northeast corner, hard by the border with Yukon. Then, Democrats in Congress—including the junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton—fired back with a bill to strengthen the refuges current ban on exploration.

ANWR is one of the most isolated, inhospitable patches of the planet, but for both sides what happens there is surprisingly emotional. The Bushes have been arguing for opening it up since the 1980s, when George W’s father campaigned on drilling for oil there. Now, the new president is using the latest U.S. energy crisis to argue that exploration is even more vital today. On the other side, environmentalists see ANWR as a straight-up fight between the forces of greed and the forces of good.

Canada, in this view, is on the side of the angels. It has opposed drilling for 20 years, taking up the cause of the Gwich’in Indians who live in both Alaska and Yukon, hunting the Porcupine caribou herd that roams the area. The 7,000 Gwich’in (whose name literally means “people of the caribou”) have become the poster children for preserving ANWR. Their leaders travel the continent, arguing that drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain, the herd’s traditional calving ground, will disrupt the caribou—and eventually destroy their people’s way of life.

Those who find comfort in black-and-white contrasts may settle for that picture. In fact, it isn’t nearly that simple. While environmentalists (and Ottawa) paint the dispute as one between Natives and The Big Bad Oil Companies, it’s just as much a case of Our Natives versus Theirs. “Ours” are the Gwich’in, who have been featured in any number of sympathetic media accounts. “Theirs” are the Inupiat Eskimo people, also about 8,500 strong, who live on the northern edge of the Arctic re-

serve and happen to like the idea of drilling for oil and gas.

To understand why, talk to one of their leaders, Oliver Leavitt, chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a native-run group based in Barrow, Alaska, near the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. Leavitt is 57 and a veteran of the first fights between energy companies and native groups over drilling for Alaska oil in the late 1960s. “We made exactly the same arguments the Gwich’in are making now,” he says. “We were afraid the wildlife would disappear and the area would be destroyed. But we’ve been proven completely wrong.”

For one thing, the predicted environmental horrors haven’t taken place. The Central Arctic caribou herd near Prudhoe Bay, for reasons probably unrelated to oil activity, has actually increased from about 5,000 in the late ’60s to almost 20,000 now.

And in the past decade, the oil industry has learned to explore in a much more environmentally sensitive way—for example by reaching many underground targets from a single drilling site, and building winter roads out of ice that melt in the spring. “They’ve dramatically reduced the footprint they make,” says Leavitt. “They’ve shown that it’s possible to explore responsibly.” Just as important, the oil business has created a modern economy on Alaska’s North Slope. Inupiat children once had to leave home to attend high school hundreds of miles away, breaking up families. Now, tax revenue and income from working in oil and gas means the Inupiat have their own schools, as well as health clinics, decent homes, roads and water supplies. “Those are things Americans take for granted—including the environmentalists down south,” says Leavitt. “We had Third World conditions here before they found oil. Without development we’d just have a big ghetto.” The Inupiat own 38,000 hectares within ANWR’s coastal plain, around the village of Kaktovik, and see that as a claim to any future profits there. “This is our home,” he says. “We’re not going to let it be ruined.”

So far they’ve been remarkably successful. The corporation that Leavitt leads operates native-run companies that specialize in oil servicing, engineering and constmction. Inupiat work in oilfields as far away as Russia’s Sakhalin Islands, and own small manufacturing companies in other U.S. states and even Mexico. Leavitt calls it “our quest for economic freedom,” and insists his people are not going to give it up for what he calls the “symbol” of keeping ANWR 100-per-cent unsullied. Talking to him, the issue that seemed so clear suddenly sounds a lot more complicated. But then, it usually is.