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The Eskimo and The Oil Man The Battle at the Top of the World for America's Future
By Reiss, Bob
Business Plus Copyright © 2012 Reiss, Bob
All right reserved.
The Argument, April 2010
The stakes could not have been higher.
Late on the morning of April 29, 2010, as the sun rose above the Arctic Ocean, a worried 64-year-old Iñupiat Eskimo whale hunter named Edward Itta stepped from a tent set into solid ice 320 miles above the Arctic Circle. He stood five feet above the Chukchi Sea. Behind him the ice stretched four miles to land. Ahead lay a channel of black water separating him from more pack ice further out. It led 1,200 miles later to the North Pole. His crew of eight had been camped here for days waiting to hunt bowhead whales migrating west from northern Canada, past Alaska.
“I did not want to leave,” he would later recall.
Itta reluctantly climbed aboard his blue Arctic Cat snowmobile and steered the two-stroke machine roughly south along the meandering trail that Eskimo crews had hewn into the ice by hand. The backbreaking labor with picks and axes had taken weeks. The four-foot-wide path was marked by small red plastic flags and Itta’s destination was Barrow, Alaska, a city of 4,500, northernmost municipality in the United States, where he had been born and where he had to attend a private meeting that day with three executives from one of the richest corporations on earth. He feared that their plan—if it went wrong—could destroy his 4,000-year-old community. Yet he feared that he might have to support it.
“I had been losing sleep over this for months.”
Itta, five foot ten, wore a white pullover whaling Windbreaker over a thick lambskin parka, goggles to protect his face against the ten-degree temperature and frostbite, thermal underwear, and extra-warm Northern Outfitters boots. His feet were susceptible to cold due to an old injury, a broken ankle. The sun would stay up for two hours in late April. Since the end of January, when it reappeared over Barrow after months of winter dark, it had remained visible a few more minutes each day. The fresh light was pinkish and welcome. At times it could seem almost like a tropical veneer over a dusting of fresh snow.
“My father first took me out to a whaling camp when I was seven years old. I couldn’t go out in the boat then. I ran errands and helped.”
Arctic ice had been thicker then, Iñupiats knew, had formed earlier in the fall each year and melted later each spring. Temperatures had been colder. Back in the 1950s, Iñupiats had used dogs to haul the wooden sleds that carried supplies to hunters and chunks of whale meat back to feed the town. But by 2010 snowmobiles were the norm and several were parked behind Itta’s crew’s tent, hidden from the sea so the bright colors wouldn’t scare off whales.
“The ocean is our garden.” It supplied the fish, seals, whales and walrus that kept the Iñupiats alive.
Itta loved whaling; the camaraderie, the physical labor, the life at camp. Dinner last night had been duck soup and boiled seal meat cooked over a portable propane stove. Twenty-four hours a day the men took turns watching for whales or sleeping on warm animal skins in their clothing, ready to move instantly if a bowhead showed up. The massive mammals had passed for centuries each spring, coming from winter feeding grounds, heading for Canada from the Bering Strait.
“Our elders tell us to take the younger ones. They are plumper and tastier.”
If a suitable bowhead came close—Barrow’s 39 crews were scattered along the ice edge—the men would launch their eighteen-foot umiaqs or traditional open boats. They would use wooden paddles to approach the animal. The boats had no motors. They were usually made of sealskin stretched over wooden frames. The harpooner would be in front, the gunwale bobbing inches from the sea. A mature bowhead can reach 70 feet in length and each step of the hunt was perilous.
One reason Itta wished he could stay at camp was that he was captain and a captain’s job was to keep his men safe. His crew were mostly family, including his 28-year-old son, Price. Itta had purchased their equipment and food, personally loaded explosive powder into their foot-long, missile-shaped, whale-killing projectiles. He’d picked the camp’s location.
Each of these choices represented a decision on safety. Choose the wrong spot and the ice could break off and float away with the crew on it. Load the powder wrong and the explosive dart would be a dud; the whale could survive the initial attack and turn on the boat or drag it out to sea. It could capsize the boat or crush the crew. Even dead, a whale could cause an accident while the tricky work of hauling it back to camp was accomplished. Lines could get tangled. Men could be dragged down.
Iñupiats had been hunting whales in northern Alaska for thousands of years and every man knew the stories. They had been passed on by elders and were recorded in dances and recounted at parties and potluck gatherings that went on year round in the eight villages of the North Slope.
The men on their way to see Itta had never been on a whale hunt. They would arrive in a private jet.
The landscape was gorgeous. The ice world through which Itta passed showed the solid geometry of rock. There were rubble fields and ice-slick ravines. The treads sank slightly in mushy areas and slid metallically when crossing bare spots. The trail meandered through a magnificent rough region of jumbled ice boulders, massive blocks thrusting skyward where two ice fields had collided. The resulting pressure ridge had formed in the same way that mountains are created when one belt of rock hits another. The ice was an extension of the continent. It appeared each year with the predictive regularity of an eons-old natural clock.
And the colors! At times a deep blue seemed to shine out from beneath the earth. The undersides of ice boulders were stained brown with algae. The sky went gray-white and a fine mist of snow began blowing. A dim yellow light ahead meant another snowmobile was coming, and then passing, its bundled driver waving a mitten as he steered by.
Grinding through four-foot-high drifts—thinking about what he would say in the meeting—Edward carried a shotgun over his shoulder for protection against polar bears. They prowled the ice in search of food, seals usually, but during whaling season a hauled-up carcass represented tons of fresh meat. Polar bears tend to shy away from noisy snowmobiles but are capable of hunting a human. Other crews had spotted one the day before near Itta’s camp.
Still, bears were a daily fact of life in Barrow. Itta was less concerned about them and more with the peril posed by the trio coming from Anchorage and Houston, North American headquarters of Shell Oil. The men had not explained exactly why they had asked for this meeting. “They never do. They said they were coming just to talk. But they’ll want something.”
The bottom line today was that Itta loved whaling and he’d rather be outside than meeting oil men in an office. But when he’d confided his desire to his old boyhood pal and crewmember Bart Ahsogeak last night, Bart had replied, “You have to go. You’re the one everybody trusts. You’ll know the right words. You’re the voice of the people.”
Now Edward was paying more attention to his problem than to where he was going.
This would soon cause an accident.
He reached shore and the landscape flattened out and he accelerated across ice-covered beach, ice-sheathed lakes and softer tundra. The snow was not deep except for piled drifts. Technically Barrow’s environs are considered desert, and little precipitation falls each year. What lands doesn’t melt. Winds move it around. Snow is so dry it clings to stop signs and rooftops in town like sand after a windstorm in Arizona. Plows nightly move piles of snow back to where they had been the day before. During whiteouts, snowmobile operators navigate by using snowdrift angles as a compass. Wind is a finger pointing toward home, or away.
Barrow is not reachable by road, just by tundra, sea or air. Coming up on Wiley Post Airport, which receives two Alaska Airlines jets each day, Edward saw the lone runway and beyond it, one-and two-story wooden homes of the city. There were light poles and gravel roads. Two multi-story office buildings, the Wells Fargo Bank and the headquarters of the Eskimo-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which operated businesses across the United States, dominated the view.
Suddenly Edward felt himself losing control. The snowcat crashed down on him, pinning him.
“I thought, You dumb shit. Pay attention.”
He managed to climb out and right the Cat. Snowmobiles on Barrow streets are a common sight, and he made it back to his small wood-sided house. His leg ached from the fall but he’d suffered no injury. Barrow homes are perched on blocks to keep them from melting the permafrost below. Inside they are heated by natural gas from a local field, and cozy when winter temperatures drop as low as 70 below zero. Boots stay in the foyer. Parkas get hung on hooks.
Itta’s residence was comfortable, furnished with stuffed chairs and a clutter of electronics in the living room: TV, computer, exercise walker. A floral-motif comforter covered a couch. The paneled walls—as in most Barrow homes—were a photo gallery of family members.
Off came the whaling gear as a transformation began. The hunter was changing into a political leader who met on occasions with Alaskan senators, Navy admirals, foreign diplomats, the secretary of the interior and even White House officials. Itta was morphing into the elected mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, a Wyoming-sized county populated by 7,500 people, mostly Iñupiats. He turned on the TV as he dressed in an open-necked, button-down blue shirt and jeans. Without the parka he looked slighter, with thick salt-and-pepper hair parted in the middle, wire-rimmed glasses and a flesh-colored hearing aid in his left ear.
What he saw on screen made his heart freeze up. There was an oil platform in a tropical sea, but then the platform was in flames, sinking, and he saw an armada of boats trying to stop spilled oil from spreading on the water. The burning rig was called the Deepwater Horizon.
What if that happens here, he thought?
Itta guessed that today’s meeting would concern the explosion. Around the world hundreds of millions of viewers were watching the same scenes in the Gulf of Mexico.
But most viewers did not have Itta’s responsibility to a community on their shoulders. Itta envisioned the whaling crews camped north of Barrow. The whole city was waiting for the first catch of spring. At the Presbyterian church Itta attended each Sunday, sermons included pleas like, “We need more whales.” At the high school, the basketball team was the Whalers. The city’s Iñupiat Heritage Center was a museum featuring whaling artifacts and even photos of Edward, years earlier, throwing a harpoon at a whale.
Whales were the base of his community, and now the vivid oil spill on TV merged with concerns that had been torturing Itta for months.
This was because the men coming to see him planned to sink one exploratory well in summer 2010, in waters off the North Slope. If that went smoothly, Shell hoped to drill one or two more. Shell people had told Itta that they believed oil lay as close as eighty miles from where he had been hunting whales. The company had obtained most of the necessary federal permits to begin the exploration. They had leased a drillship that was currently in the Philippines but would soon sail north.
“If we lose the ocean, we have lost the Iñupiat Eskimo. A spill would wipe out thousands of years of our culture.”
Itta worried about more than just a spill. He worried that Shell’s seismic work might drive sound-sensitive whales away. That pollution from ships might cause respiratory illness in North Slope coastal villages. That helicopters transporting workers once operations began might scare off caribou, seals and whales. Food-wise, that would be the equivalent of an outside force emptying every supermarket and convenience store in any US city.
As Itta left his house, his concerns were shared by most residents of the region. Subsistence hunting was not only the basis of Iñupiat culture but it provided the food that people ate. In the last census 61 percent of residents who worked full time and 89 percent of the unemployed reported getting over half their nourishment from hunting and fishing.
What to do? Fight Shell or not? The whale hunter—in his political capacity—was one of the most influential rural mayors in the United States. At his orders borough lawyers had challenged Shell in court in 2007, charging the federal agency responsible for permitting any offshore drilling with failing to conduct underlying science, failing to show whether the drill plan would do harm to the areas offshore.
“Too much, too fast, too soon,” Itta had said then, and the court had agreed with him.
A Shell spokesman said that year, “That we failed I lay directly at the feet of Edward Itta.”
But now Shell had changed the plan—made it smaller, and promised to stay away longer during hunting weeks—so Itta had refused to join national environmental groups—and a few Eskimo ones—still trying to bar Shell in court. His problem was not that he wished to halt all oil development. It was far trickier. It was a microcosm of energy issues facing the world.
“We need some oil development,” Itta said.
By 2010, oil companies contributed over $250 million in taxes to the borough annually, from onshore facilities operating at Prudhoe Bay. This money paid for the airport he’d passed that day, and schools, plumbing, home heating and road clearance in winter throughout the region. Oil revenue comprised almost the entire North Slope budget.
Itta favored onshore development, but onshore fields were drying up in Alaska. The easy-to-get stuff was gone. If the decline continued the revenue would stop.
The weight of his choices—fight Shell or not—burdened the mayor every day. “What if it is my family…,” he sometimes thought, not finishing the notion in words but envisioning two worst-case outcomes.
The first was, What if it is my family that lets them drill, and an accident happens, a spill or explosion, and whaling is destroyed, and our culture? What if this is my fault?
The flip side was, What if it is my family that stops the drilling, and as a result the North Slope goes broke?
Could a disaster like the one on TV happen here? Itta thought now, fretting, heading to his office.
But Itta also thought, My people need income from oil.
In Anchorage the weather was milder, clear for flying, and 720 miles southwest of Barrow, 52-year-old Pete Slaiby woke in his loft bedroom in his suburban 4,700-square-foot home, eyed his sleeping Brazilian-born wife, Rejani, and padded into the living room past brightly colored Mexican paintings collected during 27 years working for Shell, and a chess set from Syria, a wooden sitting stool from Cameroon, a glass model of a carnivorous pitcher plant from Brunei. He had his morning coffee in his combination jazz-listening room and well-stocked library on the ground floor, with its huge windows overlooking the gorgeous ice-covered Cook Inlet and Chugach Mountains.
Slaiby had been feeling stymied recently and thinking, We have to sink those wells.
The view outside often included Alaska’s famed wildlife. Once Slaiby had walked into the room at midday and found it so dark that he was baffled until he realized that a bull moose stood inches away on the other side of the glass, blocking the sun.
An engineer by training, the former sport drinker and wild partier was now a happily settled family man who headed Shell Oil’s Alaska Venture. He was the public face of the corporation’s Arctic plan, a youthful-looking man with a full head of collegiate-style brown hair, an expression that could be shyly goofy when he was embarrassed, suddenly fierce when he was mad, or quiet and inwardly directed when he was frustrated, which he often was when it came to the North Slope.
He had just under 100 people working for him up on the tenth and thirteenth floors of the Frontier Building—lawyers, political liaisons, drilling experts and engineers—all laboring to sink exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, so far unsuccessfully.
Shell is a Dutch company. Slaiby reported to Shell’s North American headquarters in Houston, and Houston reported to the Netherlands. Slaiby had an engineer’s confidence in technology. Asked about oil spills, he answered, with conviction, “I believe we can handle anything that comes up.”
Slaiby’s joy that morning came from looking down at his sleeping infant son, Teddy, only a month old. The couple had wished for a child for a long time. The late pregnancy seemed like a miracle. Slaiby had cut out the drinking. He’d cut out too much sun. He wanted to live for a long time to enjoy his son, and he preferred to stay close.
“But it was important to see the mayor.”
Shell had decided that the next big US oil find would be in the Arctic. In fact, the company believed that the last huge undiscovered fields left on earth lay north of the Arctic Circle beneath the sea in areas once inaccessible because of fierce weather and treacherous ice. But the poles were warming, and between new drilling and shipping technology and high oil prices the feeling was that once-forbidding northern regions would soon open for business.
Shell wasn’t alone in this thinking. By 2010 strategic planners across the globe were greedily eyeing the north. The US Geological Survey predicted that over 25 percent of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas lay in the Arctic; with 29 billion barrels of oil and up to 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas thought to lie off Alaska’s North Slope alone.
So after conducting secret seismic work Shell had paid a total of $2.1 billion to buy leases in the Beaufort Sea east of Barrow in 2005 and in the Chukchi to the west in 2008. Much of the oil—the company believed—lay close to Eskimo hunting grounds.
But five years after the first sale the only thing Shell had sunk into the area was $3.5 billion for the leases, studies, equipment and lawyers. Shell had been stopped each year between 2007 and 2009 by legal challenges brought at first by Itta, then a consortium of national environmental organizations teamed up with a few native groups, then by byzantine federal permitting processes.
To many experts, one of the most powerful individuals among these groups was Edward Itta. That is because the Iñupiat hunter spoke to all parties. He had the ear of the White House. He had a bully pulpit to address the Iñupiat people. As an ally, he could help push the plan through.
“The terms by which future oil will flow to the US will be set in large part by North Slope residents,” Mead Treadwell, head of the US Arctic Research Commission in spring 2010, had said. “That’s how important Edward is.”
“What the mayor does affects every American,” echoed Kim Elton, director of Alaska Affairs at the Department of the Interior.
So now it was necessary for Slaiby to try to keep the mayor from getting too alarmed about events in the Gulf.
Up until a week ago everything had gone fairly smoothly for Shell in 2010, considering the complexity of Alaskan oil politics. The Obama White House had announced in March that it considered the Arctic leases—awarded under President George W. Bush—viable. It could have opposed them. Itta had opted out of suing. He continued to try to gain concessions through direct talks with Shell, appeals to Alaska’s senators, meetings with federal officials and the ever-present threat that at any time he could go back to court. He wanted Shell to provide exact figures on the amount of air pollution that incoming ships would produce. He was demanding that Shell promise to haul away mud and drill cuttings brought up from the sea bottom during operations, instead of dumping them. He was trying to fund ways for scientists to study the conditions allowing marine mammals to flourish off the North Slope.
But he had not sued.
“I haven’t filed anything yet. I’m making up my mind,” Itta liked to say. He was considered a mediator who preferred to be in the room when decisions were made.
Slaiby was a Republican who believed the nation needed oil and Shell could provide it. On bad days he saw the opposition this way: “They can throw 75 issues on a wall to try to stop us. Only one has to stick for it to work.”
Now he walked downstairs to his three-car garage, chose the charcoal-colored Mercedes and headed toward Anchorage Airport’s “millionaire terminal” serving private planes.
His thickly wooded street sat off Old Seward Highway in a mixed neighborhood of modest and expensive homes. The news on his radio was getting worse. Although the Deepwater Horizon had been a BP rig, Slaiby knew that all oil companies would feel the consequences of the disaster.
“The Gulf wasn’t our problem, but in a way it was.”
He reviewed facts as he drove. On April 20 an explosion had ripped through BP’s 400-foot-long deepwater rig, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Fire had broken out. Despite alleged defenses aboard to stop a blowout, men had been sliced to death by flying shrapnel, hurled across rooms and crushed beneath wreckage. Others had leaped through a haze of smoky gas into the oil-slick Gulf 60 feet below. Two lifeboats pulled away, leaving ten crew behind.
Of 126 crew members on board, 115 were rescued; 11 died.
By the next day, fires continued burning and cleanup efforts were under way by company and US officials who feared that as many as 336,000 gallons of crude oil—roughly 7,500 barrels—might leak into the Gulf.
On April 22, a second explosion occurred 36 hours after the first, sinking the whole rig. By then CNN was reporting that 8,000 barrels of oil a day were pouring into the Gulf, and four days later independent scientists upped estimates to 25,000 barrels a day. The spill was coming from three different breaks. The only good news was that so far, Slaiby knew, good weather patterns held the spreading oil offshore, temporarily sparing the vulnerable beaches and swamps of the Gulf Coast from damage.
Meanwhile the US Minerals Management Service, which was responsible for regulating safety on oil rigs off the United States, reported that it had conducted three routine inspections of the Deepwater Horizon in 2010, the latest on April 1, and found no violations. This did little to engender trust in that agency, whose policies had been under assault for months in government reports and the press.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion was about to become the worst oil spill disaster in US history. So it was important for Slaiby and his bosses to try to calm Mayor Itta.
“We had to explain the difference between what we wanted to do in Alaska and what had happened in the Gulf.”
Slaiby said, “You ignore Edward Itta at your peril.”
The big environmental organizations knew this too, and Itta’s staff had received a steady stream of phone calls from them in the wake of the Gulf disaster. “They figured surely the mayor would put his foot down and say never, but he was still evaluating,” said a top aide to Itta, Andy Mack.
The irony of all this, from an oil proponent’s point of view, was that the funds that paid for Itta’s efforts came from oil. When Itta went to Washington, when he stayed at a hotel in Alaska’s capital of Juneau, when he hired lawyers, the monies that paid for it originated with BP, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell.
Oil tied together Pete Slaiby and Edward Itta. Both needed it. On that day, when the balance between extracting energy resources and protecting environments preoccupied communities across the US, Itta and Slaiby weighed in as two passionate sides of the issue. Slaiby with confidence. Itta with fear. Slaiby boosting technology. Itta his community. Both men wanted to do the right thing. Both took their jobs seriously. Both had different visions of what their jobs entailed and both knew that the outcome would affect every American, and possibly the world.
Itta said, “It is a high being an American. I know the country needs energy. I have to find a balance.”
“My mission is to drill,” Slaiby said.
The flight from Anchorage to Barrow takes one and a half hours. Alaska is so big that were the state to be superimposed over America’s lower 48 states, the east end would touch North Carolina and the west would brush Los Angeles, as shown on business cards carried by some US Air Force officers assigned to Elmendorf base in Anchorage.
Talking strategy, Shell’s president, Marvin Odum; Pete Slaiby and Dave Lawrence, executive vice president of exploration—the soft-spoken man who had made the call as to the size of the potential find off the North Slope—passed over Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, over the Noatak National Preserve and the massive mountains of the Brooks Range that run along the southern boundary of the North Slope. Suddenly the jet seemed to be flying much lower but that was because the peaks reached up so high. A world of white passed below when the clouds thinned enough to permit visibility. You could fly for hours here without seeing a town or city, streetlight or road. Below lay an ice planet, with oxbow-shaped bends of tundra rivers demarcated by depressions in the snow, the faint oval shape of tundra lakes the barest drop in land. Down there lived many more wild animals than human beings—caribou herds in the tens of thousands; grizzly bears in the south part of the borough, although they also occasionally came north; wolves and wolverines; musk ox and moose. There were the summer nesting grounds of millions of birds that wintered in Nebraska and Mexico, New York and California. There were deep lakes filled with Arctic char. These were creatures that Edward Itta had grown up seeing, hunting and eating.
“We were concerned that the mayor might backtrack. It was imperative that people of the North Slope understand the difference in risk between the Gulf and the Arctic. The Gulf was not our crisis, but we were going to end up wearing it,” Slaiby said, worried that once again, Shell’s plan would fall through.
By 4 p.m. the mayor anxiously waited for the oil men in his office, in a new and modern borough office building constructed with oil tax revenue. The structure centered on a well-lit atrium with offices along its periphery and others upstairs. There was excellent lighting and computers, fax machines, a Borough Assembly meeting room. Wall decorations included photos of Eskimo dances and blanket-toss celebrations.
With Itta sat a tall, white-haired and deceptively soft-spoken lawyer named Harold Curran, a key aide, an incisive analyst with a razor mind and quietly ferocious temper. The mayor had invited me to sit in as a writer for Parade magazine.
Also in the second-floor office were representations of things that mattered to Itta: walrus tusk ivory carvings showing Eskimo scenes, and a large oil painting of one Iñupiat founder of the borough with a bowhead whale swimming below him as he looked into the future, where Itta sat now. There was a print of a lone Eskimo hunter on an ice floe, cut off, adrift, which Itta had hung to remind himself of the “importance of doing things right,” he said.
“It wasn’t his fault he was adrift, because nature does what it wants to do. But the other side is, he ended up in the middle of the ocean because he didn’t pay attention.”
Also relevant to the upcoming meeting were two maps posted in the adjacent conference room. They both showed the borough. The first was a topographical depiction of the land Itta loved. The Slope appeared in brown beside the blue Arctic seas and the white of the rest of Alaska. The northern part of the borough was dotted by thousands of elliptical freshwater lakes, cut by dozens of rivers, bordered by Canada’s Yukon Territory on the east and by a village called Point Hope—which opposed all offshore drilling—on the western tip. Tiny black airplanes marked places that received regular air service, like Barrow. Red airplanes—there were more of them—showed communities capable of receiving small planes but that had no regular service.
Denoted also were massive federally designated areas including the National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
This map showed an American Serengeti, one of the last remaining pristine, wild places on earth.
Which was why the second map was so striking. It depicted the same area divided into perfectly formed squares, as mathematical and sharply drawn as boundaries in a Chicago Realtor’s guide.
If the first map invited a viewer to imagine natural history and wildlife, the second was the highlighted threat or promise—depending on how you regarded it—of profit and national energy supply. The squares represented “Resource Development Districts.” The first map was bordered by drawings of a wolf and a caribou. The second showed the Alaska pipeline snaking south from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean toward the Valdez oil terminal in southern Alaska. Instead of native names for locations the map opted for numbers, as in, “U006S0116E.”
It was hard to believe the maps showed the same area.
“I’ll work with Shell, but I don’t trust them. They try my patience,” Itta said.
At 4 p.m. the executives finally arrived, shook Itta’s hand, and sat down at his oblong conference table. A ceiling fan rotated slowly. A glass jar held M&Ms and peppermints. The executives wore corduroy shirts, boots, jeans, Columbia fleece pullovers. Not a suit or tie in sight.
The room was quiet except for the hum of an air control unit, the mood one of strained cordiality at first. The men asked about each other’s families. The mayor brought up the subject of potential air pollution from the incoming Shell drillship and Pete Slaiby assured him that it would use ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel. The company was overhauling the exhaust system to reduce emissions.
Slaiby promised that the drillship would not even go into the Chukchi Sea if the ice was too dangerous.
Itta listened but said, “I haven’t filed anything yet,” meaning a lawsuit. “I still haven’t made up my mind.”
He added, “This thing in the Gulf of Mexico scares the shit out of us.”
Now they were down to the purpose of the meeting.
Marvin Odum was a handsome man of about 50, with a friendly, authoritative air. He told Itta, “It’s not our well.”
“We’ve been in the Gulf for 30 years without an incident,” added Dave Lawrence.
“Here in the Arctic you have shallower water depth, lower pressure, a simpler system to control,” Slaiby explained. “We’re drilling an exploration well, not a producing well, and there will be barriers in place to assure that an accident like in the Gulf never happens.”
The room seemed filled with pressure. Potential flash points rose and retreated. An occasional joke alleviated tension.
“The first thing I thought about when I heard of the Gulf of Mexico was you guys,” Marvin Odum said. “Not doing it right here would destroy our reputation around the world. It’s so sensitive that there’s no room for mistakes. This will be our most important operation worldwide.”
Itta seemed slightly mollified, but when Slaiby asked him to explain Shell’s position to his people, he snapped.
“It’s been a week and a half and not one of you guys has come out and announced to the people here, ‘Here’s the difference between what happened in the Gulf and what we want to do.’ The onus always falls on me to say, ‘I talked to Shell and they’re okay.’ That’s not good enough anymore.”
The executives stiffened. Slaiby offered, “We can’t have something here that’s difficult for you politically.”
Odum assured the mayor, “We’ll be taking responsibility for explaining this.”
After the oil men left, a slightly calmer Itta sighed. “I’m not trying to stop the oil. But if whales disappear, so will our culture. We rise and fall with the bowhead whale.”
Itta’s crew was not the one to harvest the first bowhead of the season that spring. The honor went to Harry Brower Jr., one of Itta’s neighbors in Barrow, a 51-year-old Iñupiat whaling crew captain who was sitting in his skin boat on the ice at 9:15 p.m. on May 1, inches from the lead—the spot where open water began—looking out.
“There wasn’t just one whale out there. There were multiple ones, migrating along the open lead. The whales were on the run.”
Harry Brower Jr. is a religious man. He regularly prayed for whales, and suddenly a bowhead surfaced a few feet away.
“We’re taught that these animals are listening to us. You respect them. You don’t brag. You don’t say I. You say we take an animal, we do it by working together.”
The first whale was joined by a second, which noticed the men watching. As it tried to escape under the ice its movements pushed its companion closer to Harry, who had never before had the honor of harvesting the first whale of a season. Rising, the powerful man threw the harpoon, which remained in the whale.
To imagine what happened next you have to understand that although most Americans think of a “harpoon” as the entire long spearlike apparatus thrown at a whale, it is only the steel-tipped arrow attached to the wooden shaft. Inside the shaft is a “darting gun” or firearm. If the harpoon embeds itself deep enough in the whale, the animal’s outer skin hits a plungerlike trigger. The trigger fires an explosive shell—a hand-packed “superbomb”—into the whale. The wooden shaft then falls into the ocean like the first stage of a rocket ship, to be recovered later since it floats, and the barbed harpoon remains in the whale, attached by rope to a float that marks the animal’s location if it dives and heads away.
Harry’s superbomb instantly killed the whale.
The massive animal rolled over and began sinking under the ice, dragging the small boat with Harry inside it into the water. His crew tried to hold on to the line that was playing out but they were pulled toward the lip of the ice. The men shouted for Harry to let go of the line but he refused.
Eventually they retrieved the boat onto the ice.
As always happens when a whale is landed, word now went out by radio and cell phone, reaching other camps and people in town. Dozens of men, women, and children rushed out to Harry’s camp to help.
“We were anxious to start cutting up the whale, getting it to our community members.”
A steady stream of helpers dragged the whale onto the ice and cut it up, a process that ended in the dark by 1 a.m.
“A lot of people were happy. They were going to have fresh food. Catch of the day!”
Each man in Harry’s crew and every helper would get a share. Much of what remained would be carved up and saved in frozen cellars dug into permafrost around town. It would be distributed at feasts that occurred over the rest of the year, in churches or the high school during important events, and to needy elders. As tradition dictated, much of the meat was transported by sled to Harry’s home in town for an immediate celebratory feast.
Harry and other men hauled in ice from nearby lakes for cooking. “I don’t use faucet water. It has a chlorinated taste,” he said. The wives set to work boiling meat. Portions were divided into squares that would taste faintly like pot roast, and also into muktuk, a vastly loved delicacy composed of strips of skin with blubber attached.
Between twelve and fifteen tons of meat came from the whale.
“We boil all the parts. The tongue. Portions of the heart. The kidneys. A glorious time, to feed the people!”
Harry also helped cook a fruit drink of plums, peaches and raisins—chilled and served as dessert.
When the food was ready, Harry hoisted his crew’s small flag over his house—each captain has his own, made by his wife—and at that signal almost instantly people began streaming toward the house from all over town. Snowmobiles and vans pulled up. Kids arrived by bicycle. Neighbors walked over. The living room floor was covered with cardboard sheeting and the meat lay in pans on the table. Every inch of space seemed packed with happy men, women and children eating. Harry—a rugged, powerful man—hugged each guest.
“There’s nothing to compare this happiness to except taking a whole bunch of children to McDonald’s,” he said. Barrow lacked a McDonald’s, but Harry had taken his kids to them in Anchorage.
As people departed they were urged to take away plastic bags filled with muktuk, and like guests at a wedding in the lower 48 gathering up table floral arrangements, happy Barrowites stuffed bags of food into parka pockets.
Among the guests was Mayor Itta.
“We didn’t talk about Shell that day. Just whaling.”
They were indulging in a tradition that had gone on in Barrow for over a thousand years, one that as community leaders they had dedicated themselves to continuing. One that rapid changes across the Arctic—they both knew worriedly—could end during their lifetimes.
On May 27, 26 days later, as the Deepwater Horizon continued leaking, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar suspended all offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. The stoppage would last until federal officials determined it safe to begin drilling again, he said.
With Salazar’s announcement Shell’s hopes were dashed for 2010, but for Slaiby and Itta the stage had been set for upcoming battles in 2011.
Slaiby was determined to drill. Was it too much to ask, after paying over $3 billion, that a company might be allowed to explore leases it had purchased?
Slaiby was known inside the company as a closer, a fixer. If he was going to keep that reputation, he needed to drill. He thought of himself as a production guy. He liked to drill.
Edward Itta had breathing space to seek more protections for his people. But the next year would be his last in office, last chance as mayor to influence the oil giant and Washington while still struggling to guarantee oil revenue for the North Slope. After that someone else would lead the North Slope and Itta would spend the coming years living with the consequences of what he’d achieved or failed to do.
The pressure was growing again. The fact was that lots of threatening changes were coming to the Arctic and they did not all relate to oil.
By the time Edward left Harry Brower Jr.’s house that day both men knew that offshore oil was just one crucial issue in their world, that 2011 would be a bellwether year for them, for Shell, for the Arctic and the nation’s ability to deal with rapid changes there.
Itta summed it up.
“We were here before oil. We will be here after. We’re the ones who will bear the brunt.”
The Big Thaw, May
Iñupiats of Alaska’s North Slope speak of ice with the respect that a Sudanese hunter has for a lion, the knowledge with which a prizewinning Iowa farmer regards a field of summer corn, the love that a Vermont poet has for New England leaf variations in October.
Ice appears in autumn like the first snowflakes in the Rockies and departs each spring with the arrival of the whales.
The Yupik Eskimos of St. Lawrence Island—in the Bering Sea, southwest of Barrow—have almost one hundred words for ice, not just descriptions of its physical properties but advice for young hunters who learn from an elder.
Qateghrapak is packed soft ice, perilous to walk on. From a distance it appears as pure white. It is slush that has frozen on top, but the lower section remains mush.
Watch it, the word means. You may fall through.
Kiivnin is snow that sits in the ocean so don’t mistake it for ice, young hunters. When snow falls heavily, kiivnin forms clumps on the water and slightly below. A boat filled with hunters may have trouble pushing through.
Nutemtaq is friendlier, older ice floes that have flattened and are thick, solid. They look as if they’ve had a layer of snow on them for a while. Excellent platform for hunting!
On Nunaavalleq, where walrus have rested for several days, ice is stained brown from their bodily waste.
Ice words quantify friendliness or danger. Most feared in Barrow is an ivu, an almost living incarnation of massive, fast-moving ice. An ivu can form suddenly when large masses of ice collide and the momentum creates mini-mountain ranges. A Barrow-based scientist, taxi driver or teenage couple driving north along the shore road on a winter night, heading out of town to view the Arctic’s famed Northern Lights, might gaze seaward and see snow-dusted ice stretching with deceptive calm to the horizon.
But the next morning the same view might be blocked by thirty-foot-high ice mountains that move steadily across the beach, even onto the road. Ivu!
Ivus can break up whaling camps in seconds and send hunters scurrying for snowmobiles to escape. They can block a hunter from heading home or bury a man too slow to get away. After large waves eroded bluffs in Barrow one winter recently, residents spotted forms of human bodies floating in the sea. They turned out to be a family that had been buried by an ivu centuries ago as they slept in their sod home. The eroding bluff had spewed out the corpses, perfectly preserved down to pebbles found in a girl’s stomach. She’d eaten them to keep gnawing hunger at bay the winter she died.
Western scientists are continually humbled by Eskimo knowledge of ice. The National Weather Service added the word “ivu” to its more limited vocabulary of terms in 2000 to supplement broadcasts for shippers. Until then there had been no English words to explain the phenomenon. “Fast-moving ice?” “Ice mountains appearing out of nowhere?”
Ivu—implying a whole set of behavior—is easier to say and more expressive.
One East Coast–born biologist based in Alaska who studies marine mammals told me a story to explain Arctic ice behavior and also why elders are revered in Eskimo communities as repositories of ice knowledge.
“I went out with hunters in a small boat. They brought along a little old man who never spoke. I figured he was someone’s uncle… as in, you know… old uncle Joe, who you always have to drag everywhere. Every family has an uncle Joe. I didn’t think there was a purpose in the guy being there. I figured the young men were just being nice.
“That night we camped on an ice floe. Uncle Joe hadn’t said a word all day. The hunters got a stove going and were making dinner. I went behind an ice boulder to take a leak. It was a beautiful night. Suddenly Uncle Joe spoke, so softly that I barely made out the words. He said, ‘We have to leave right now.’
“Well! I’ve never seen people move so fast. Nobody questioned him. Nobody made a face or looked around. They grabbed that equipment and jumped into the boat and I almost missed leaving, and as we pulled off an enormous ice mass came out of nowhere, crashed into the spot where we’d been camping and destroyed it.
“I thought,” the scientist added with awed respect, “So that’s why they took Uncle Joe along.”
Ice is the paramount feature of the 5.5 million square miles above the Arctic Circle. It is the source of stories, legends and history. Front yards in Barrow are living museums for people who value ice. They are strewn with snowmobiles, wooden sleds, snowshoes, drying racks for polar bear or caribou fur, yellow mechanical snowcats, walking sticks for probing sea ice for thickness, fishing nets to be lowered through gaps in ice.
Inside, home computers are turned to the National Weather Service for ice and weather reports. Wives on cell phones ask relatives if a husband or son has returned from a trip on the ice. Families sit around at dinner eating caribou or musk ox stew or smoked salmon and the talk may be of an upcoming journey to Anchorage by SUV, but not on a road or even on land at all in stretches, because the trip involves using a GPS system to drive a new Ford SUV directly over sea ice to Prudhoe Bay and then on a man-made ice road south to visit a cousin or go shopping.
Eskimo dances are often mime shows set to drumming and can depict hunting polar bears on ice, whales emerging through ice holes, or lovers journeying over ice, building a snow wall to protect themselves from fierce winds at night.
No written Iñupiat language existed until a century ago. Knowledge was passed on verbally. This is one reason why spoken statements are still regarded more carefully than in the lower 48. People who say something mean it. In a society where a mistake in phrasing can mean death, if you casually tell someone, “I’ll give you a call,” you better do it or the person will remember you as a liar. Words matter. Poetry emerges spontaneously and often describes the Arctic’s fundamental building block—ice.
One day, for instance, I was driving along Barrow’s coast road with Richard Glenn, a former whaling co-captain for the Savik family crew. He was also a member of the North Slope Borough Planning Commission, a geologist with a master’s degree from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, a member of an Eskimo dance group and a rock band keyboard player for “The Barrowtones,” who play every Saturday night in the roller rink, for free. Come one. Come all.
Richard has so many talents that Pete Slaiby once told him, “I finally figured you out. You’re a Renaissance man. You love everything.”
He certainly loved ice. As a whaler he studied it offshore. As a caribou hunter he had familiarized himself with its variations on the tundra. A father of three daughters, he knew, looking outside any winter morning, the best way to dress children for ice. Richard the geologist regarded ice tectonics like rock. As a member of the US Arctic Research Commission he still often traveled the world, speaking about ice in venues like New York City’s Museum of Natural History.
He was—in a way—an internationally recognized spokesman for ice, and that day, in his truck, he became Richard the poet, whose talent with words was sometimes sought by Mayor Itta at high-level meetings. Even in a verbal society Richard had a special way.
He glanced out at the sea ice.
“One fall I took a twelve-mile hike along this road. I saw open water when I started and ice when I came home. It was the beginning of ice coverage that year. After that day I knew it would change like a living thing, during colder periods growing faster, in very cold temperatures going rigid. During warmer periods it would be loose and weakly cemented, but for the rest of the year it would thicken. Tides and storms come and go. The ocean breaks against itself and forms mountain ranges and now you have plate tectonics on a smaller scale. In Barrow you see it happen.
“And then there’s a change. Snow drifts on top of it and things warm. You smell it. Do you know how men and women go through ‘the change’ in their lives? Well, the snow that was on top all winter melts, percolates and drops through. It flushes salt out of that ice that used to be saturated in brine. The ice gets weak and rotten and finally you can’t wait for it to break up. It’s no longer the strong, vibrant thing you knew.
“That is late spring for us,” he said, smiling, “when the whales, seals, ducks and geese come. We wait for open water. A lot happens in life with that time of change.”
That’s the way it was supposed to happen. That’s the way it had happened for thousands of years. But as Richard Glenn and Mayor Itta knew, by 2010 the millennia-old natural structure of the Arctic was changing.
Throughout northern Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Siberia and northern Norway, even the elders were saying that something unprecedented was happening.
The ice—the once dependably permanent feature of their world—was melting away.
While some US scientists still argued in 2010 over why the earth was heating up and whether human influence or natural factors were responsible, no one denied that temperatures were higher. The Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, according to the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a study commissioned by the Arctic Council, a sort of mini United Nations for countries having lands within the Arctic Circle: the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Iceland and Finland.
The Council exists to foster cooperative decision making, so it monitors conditions. Arctic summer sea ice shrank by nearly 40 percent between 1978 and 2007. Winter temperatures have dropped by several degrees Fahrenheit from a few decades ago. Trees have spread into tundra. In 2008 a wildfire broke out north of the Brooks Range in the North Slope, in a place where the local dialect had no word for forest fire.
“We’ve never seen ice melt like this in history,” ice forecaster Luc Desjardins of the Canadian Ice Service said.
By 2008, when Pete Slaiby came to Alaska, even officials in the administration of President George W. Bush, which adamantly opposed embracing any idea that human influence has a substantial role in earth’s climate, fretted about a hotter Arctic.
That summer I stood aboard the US Coast Guard cutter Healy north of Barrow as a helicopter landed on deck carrying Bush’s secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, and Coast Guard commandant Thad Allen. Wearing crisp blue uniforms, they awarded the crew a commendation for work furthering US economic and strategic interests, “in the face of climate change as the ice recedes further each spring,” it read.
The next day, at 6 a.m. on the bridge, Chertoff told me, “I don’t know why the Arctic is warming, but it’s a fact and we better get ready for it.”
Allen added, “All I know is there is water where there was once ice. And where there is water, the Coast Guard is responsible for it.”
They were not talking about only oil and not only about environmental issues, although like millions of people they knew that Arctic ice helps cool the planet, that its disappearance could speed warming, that animals like polar bears and walrus could suffer as ice cover diminishes, that melting freshwater glaciers in Greenland might shrink the percentage of salt in seawater and raise ocean levels.
But Chertoff and Allen referred to national security issues, and several loomed as ice melted. The Northwest Passage—the long-dreamed-of trade route between Europe, Asia, and the US, around the top of Canada and Alaska—could open to ships in summers as soon as 2020, some computer models predicted.
If that happened, up to 25 percent of earth’s shipping might be passing Barrow within ten years, and if the specter of one drill rig could bother whalers, the idea of hundreds of unregulated ships out there was a nightmare.
“The Bering Strait could be the next Panama Canal,” predicted Mead Treadwell.
Why? Money! “A single Chinese container ship sailing between Shanghai and New York could save up to $2 million on fuel and fees each way, using the northern route instead of the Panama Canal,” Scott Borgerson, Oceans Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, had told me.
The Coast Guard, however, had no permanent base in the Arctic. No way to monitor ship traffic or know whether or not a vessel was friendly, or about to rupture and spill oil, or whether it carried proper lifeboats for passengers.
“We’re going to have problems,” said Admiral Allen, who kept bringing Washington VIPs to Alaska to push for more money for Coast Guard needs.
Chertoff and Allen also referred to a treaty the US was considering ratifying that would allow any country on earth with ocean frontage to claim new undersea territory and mining rights offshore. North of Barrow this could mean a US gain the size of California.
The secretary and commandant knew that because of this treaty—the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—a race had broken out among Arctic nations for control of undersea territory. Some claims overlapped. Russia wanted title to an area the size of France and Spain combined. Some countries sought to block the claims of others. Some were sending troops to the Arctic as their leaders spoke of possible conflict.
“The Russian claim,” said Ariel Cohen of Washington’s conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation that year, “is a time bomb.”
There are remote places on earth that remain relatively unknown in one century and become pivotal the next; places never mentioned in headlines that one day suddenly fill them. The Arabian Peninsula—considered a wasteland of desert—transforms into Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich kingdom. The malarial jungles of the Isthmus of Panama are gouged out to form the strategic and critical Panama Canal.
The North Slope of Alaska could be such a place in the 21st century.
The bottom line in 2010 was that the Arctic was still harsh and dangerous but not inaccessible. It was breaking into spheres of national influence. Those who controlled it would prosper. Those who lost opportunities or failed to prepare would gnash their teeth.
Excerpted from The Eskimo and The Oil Man by Reiss, Bob Copyright © 2012 by Reiss, Bob. Excerpted by permission.
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