Arctic natives could lose their say in oil and gas development

February 19, 2013

Alaska Governor Sean Parnell and energy companies are pushing to take away Alaskans’ voice in how oil and gas drilling, mining, road building and other development is balanced with protection for clean water, fish and wildlife. Several bills now being debated in the Alaska Legislature would strip public input and review from permitting of resource extraction on state lands.

The stakes are especially high for the Inupiat (Eskimo) people of Alaska’s Arctic Slope, a vast, mostly roadless region roughly the size of Oregon. Hunting caribou and harvesting what the ocean has to give is still essential to their diet and culture. Most Inupiat villages are accessible only by air or boat. What groceries are available are expensive and don’t offer the nutrition or fulfillment of their ancestral diet.

Inupiat leaders last week travelled to the state capital to send a message to lawmakers. “We want to have some input. We live there. Lawmakers are hundreds, even thousands of miles away,” said Willard Neakok, president of the Point Lay Tribal Council, to KTUU-TV News in Anchorage. It was my privilege to have the job of helping them tell their story.

Much of the land and waters of the Arctic Slope are still healthy, with most of the oil and gas drilling confined to Prudhoe Bay, America’s largest oil field. But now, the Inupiat face a wave of new development that threatens their subsistence way of life.

The State of Alaska wants to build the Road to Umiat through the heart of caribou nursing and calving grounds to give big energy companies access to oil, gas and coal deposits. And the push for offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean threatens the fish and marine life at the very heart of Inupiat culture.

The push to sweep aside safeguards for Alaska’s land, water and wildlife resources, and Alaskans’ say in how they should be managed, is being driven by the state’s tether to the oil industry. About 90 percent of Alaska’s budget comes from oil and gas royalties. But oil flowing from Prudhoe Bay, the source of most of Alaska’s money and oil, has been steadily declining since the 1980s and the state now faces domestic competition the likes of which it has never seen before.

Hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota, Texas and elsewhere in the lower 48 states has unleashed an unprecedented boom in American oil production. So much so that the International Energy Agency recently declared the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2020.

So the Inupiat people find themselves arrayed against some of the most powerful interests on earth. But they also live in one of the most difficult climates on earth, sometimes venturing out to hunt caribou when the mercury dips to minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit. They are not people to shrink from a challenge. As an Inupiat hunter once told me “I’d rather hunt in the middle of winter. . .no bugs.” My money’s on the Inupiat.

I like to think a lot of Alaskans are rooting for them too. Most Alaskans support development of the state’s natural resources, but I can’t imagine they’d want to lose their say in how those resources are managed. If they lose their voice Alaskans risk losing the very things that make Alaska, Alaska – clean air, clean water, and fish and wildlife in abundance.

Mark Glyde