Magazine

The Alaskans sitting on billions of barrels of oil

  • 29 November 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Man dragging a walrus

After a decade of legal wrangling and spending $4.5bn (£2.8bn), this year Shell Oil was given permission to begin exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska. But many in the local Inupiat community are concerned it could have a devastating impact on one of their main sources of food - the bowhead whale.

Marie Casados shows me the contents on her freezer. Inside there's whale meat, muktuk - frozen whale skin and blubber - a selection of fish and a polar bear foot, which looks like a human hand. She describes it as a real delicacy. But it's more than that - this is her food supply for the winter.

Fishing and hunting are central to the Inupiat way of life - archaeologists have found evidence of humans hunting whales in the area dating back to as early as 800BC.

Image caption Marie Casados and her prized polar bear foot

"We are the oldest continuous inhabitants of North America," says Point Hope's Mayor Steve Oomituk. "We've been here thousands of years."

Oomituk shares the fear of many in the small community - population 800 - that offshore drilling by Shell could destroy the food chain that they rely on for survival. Over 80% of the food eaten in Point Hope is caught by the people themselves.

They worry that it will disrupt the migration routes of the marine mammals, driving them away from the coastal waters where they can be reached by hunters.

"Their proposed Arctic drilling is right in the path of the animals' migration routes," says Oomituk.

"We live in a cycle of life that hasn't changed for thousands of years. We know where the animals are coming. We know when they are going north, when they are going south, this is our home, our land, our identity as a people."

But Oomituk recognises that, like every other American citizen, he is dependent on fossil fuels. He heats his house with diesel, he drives a vehicle that needs petrol.

Jobs are also a major concern in this poor community. As mayor, Oomituk appreciates that many people would benefit from a new local employer.

Image caption Mayor Steve Oomituk is passionate about preserving Inupiat traditions
Image caption Oomituk says he worries about the "Western ways" that children in the community are adopting. "They want hamburgers, hot dogs, they drink pop all the time," he says.
Image caption The community still gets most of its food from hunting and fishing in the coastal waters
Image caption Whale bones litter the site of the "feasting ground", where they gather to share out the whale meat
Image caption Many parts of the animals are used by the Inupiat
Image caption Imported food - like these New Zealand apples - is incredibly expensive
Image caption Locals fear an accidental oil spill could destroy their local food chain and way of life
Image caption A third of Point Hope's population are school-aged - how will offshore drilling change their future?

"You want jobs for the people, you want the economy to come up, but do you want to sacrifice your way of life to have that happen? To endanger a way of life that's been here for time immemorial?"

So the proposed drilling poses a real dilemma for the Inupiat.

In Point Hope, some people simply don't have enough to eat. Queuing up at a soup kitchen, where chunks of deep-fried king salmon and caribou stew are dished out to hungry locals, Patrick Jobstone says he'd be grateful to get any kind of job.

He has been looking for work ever since he came out of prison for drink and drug-related offences, and is struggling to support his wife and child.

For Jobstone, a job with Shell would be an answer to his prayers. He is already being trained in clearing toxic waste in anticipation of any new job opportunities and hopes to be taken on as one of Shell's spill response team.

"If they have jobs I will work for them no problem," he says. But he too is concerned about pollution.

"If an oil rig spilled and made a mess of the ocean, how am I ever going to eat a whale that's not contaminated? Crude oil stays on the bottom of the ocean," he says.

Pete Slaiby, vice-president of Shell in Alaska, accepts that oil spills are a concern for the community.

Image caption The orange areas show Shell's leases to explore for and extract oil. Shell estimates that the Arctic holds some 30% of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its yet-to-find oil - the equivalent, overall, of 400bn barrels of oil.

"There's no sugarcoating this," he said. "If you ask me will there will ever be spills, I imagine there will be spills. No spill is OK.

"Will there be a spill large enough to impact people's subsistence? My view is no, I don't believe that would happen."

On the other hand, he argues that oil extracted off the coast of Point Hope could make a big difference to America as a whole.

"It could mean a significant step in the journey to energy independence of the United States," he says.

Slaiby says that the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, which has supplied the United States with oil extracted on land for 40 years, is beginning to run low.

"We're seeing a decline, year-on-year of 6%. For us, keeping the Trans-Alaskan pipeline going is in our national goals."

It's a familiar dilemma that has been played out time and time again across the world - should a community prioritise economic development over environmental protection?

This summer for the first time, the Point Hope tribal council met representatives from Shell, including Pete Slaiby, in the Point Hope town hall - a dilapidated wooden geodesic dome fashioned to look like an igloo.

Afterward the locals were emotional, but resigned to the onset of the drilling.

We need to get all the information and make sure it's done properly, said Peggy Frankeson, executive director of the tribal council who was at the meeting.

"We're the caretakers of the animals and the land and we need to make sure that our culture is able to carry on for the next 10-20,000 years," she says.

In the event, Shell was unable to extract any off-shore oil this year. Firstly, drilling was stalled when a massive chunk of ice - 30 miles (48km) long and 12 miles (19km) wide - appeared to be heading towards their ship.

Later, Shell began drilling on two sites but was prohibited from extending wells into petroleum reservoirs by the US Coastguard after a huge dome designed to contain any spill broke down under trials.

The area is now iced over until next year, and the people of Point Hope have been granted a stay of execution, or a frustrating delay, depending on your point of view. Next year, Shell will be back to start drilling again.

The Battle for Point Hope was broadcast on BBC World Service and is available to listen via BBC iPlayer. You can also browse the documentary podcast archive.

Image caption Source: Oil Spill Intelligence Report

Photographs by May Abdalla. Additional reporting by Bethan Jinkinson.

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