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Native Alaskans Divided On State's Oil Drilling Debate

 A drilling rig sits on Oooguruk Island off the coast of Alaska's North Slope. The 6-acre island was built by Pioneer Natural Resources so it could drill for oil on the Arctic Ocean.
Steve Quinn

Shell Oil plans to explore for petroleum off Alaska's north coast this summer. The native people of Alaska have a big stake in both oil revenue and environmental protection. That conflict has played out in recent trips by Inupiats to Washington, D.C., to argue their case.

One of those appearances was in the last place on Earth you might expect to find a pro-whaling news conference: a Greenpeace meeting room. But that actually transpired, thanks to alliances formed to fight Arctic oil drilling. Environmental activists know one of their strongest arguments is to speak out and even go to court to protect a traditional culture. That includes whale hunts.

Our tax base is based on oil and gas. There's nothing else there.

That's how Caroline Cannon came to be at Greenpeace headquarters during a news conference organized by the Alaska Wilderness Society. She's the former mayor of Point Hope, Alaska, which she calls the whaling capital.

"We rely on the whale, the bowhead whale," she said. "It is our identity. It is who we are, and the thought of offshore drilling, or an oil spill, is very terrifying."

Cannon and her companions portrayed this whaling activity as part of their subsistence culture.

"We need the foods from our lands and waters to feed our families," said Point Hope resident Rosemary Ahtuangaruak. "We cannot afford to buy the foods that come up to the Arctic. The costs of transportation increase these costs, so that it can take your whole paycheck to try to feed your family from the store."

But that culture has seen a dramatic shift in recent decades, and it's because of oil money. The median household income in Point Hope is $77,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Native corporations have also reinvested billions of dollars from oil revenue and now benefit from that income.

In fact, there is so much oil money in Alaska, residents get a check from the state every year instead of paying income tax.

At a separate Washington event sponsored by the Pew Environment Group, Edward Itta spoke about Arctic drilling. He's the former mayor of the North Slope Borough, a vast area of northern Alaska including Point Hope. He campaigned for office opposing offshore oil development.

"My initial attitude had been not only no, but hell no. Over my dead body," Itta said. But once he got into office, he realized what it took to keep the enormous county running.

"Our tax base is based on oil and gas. There's nothing else there," he said. "We have schools, airports, roads, landfills, health facilities, hospitals, decent homes which keep warm now and have light and power, which when I grew up we didn't have."

The North Slope's biggest source of oil, Prudhoe Bay, is running low. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is working at one-third of its capacity, and oil revenues are shrinking. That leaves the potentially vast deposits of offshore oil.

Itta is worried about a spill, of course. But he seemed more worried that Shell might load offshore oil directly onto tankers, and not pay the fees to pipe the oil through Alaska.

"If there was no economic benefit up there, we would be opposed, period," he said.

Itta's point of view is not news to the people from Point Hope.

"Others have goals of lofty wants out there," Ahtuangaruak said. "But when it's the goals of protecting who and what we are as a people, and keeping us healthy in our tradition and cultures, this is a conflict that we cannot meet."

And, she says, the oil will eventually be gone. What will they do after that?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
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