Native Alaskans say oil drilling threatens way of life

Barrow's blanket toss in action

Native Alaskans living on the edge of the Arctic Ocean fear new oil drilling could destroy their unique way of life, but many Alaskans believe the Arctic's energy reserves could be economically and politically important. The BBC's Rajesh Mirchandani visited the Arctic town of Barrow during a traditional spring whale-hunting festival.

The town of Barrow on Alaska's northernmost tip is one of the most remote places on earth. No roads cross the Arctic tundra to get here, and the nearest city - Fairbanks - is 90 minutes away by air.

It's a place of extremes: in winter it stays dark for more than two months, but now, midnight looks like midday as townsfolk hurl children one by one into the air on a mat made of seal skin.

Map showing Barrow and Fairbanks, Alaska

The blanket toss is part of Naluqatak, a spring festival held in Native Alaskan villages across Alaska's Arctic north slope. Most people in Barrow are at least part-native and hundreds have turned out, many in traditionally-made coats of animal fur, to celebrate another catch: whale.

Twice a year Native Alaskan communities like this hunt whale. It's legal and not commercial, and for thousands of years people in the Alaskan Arctic have depended on the meat.

Major environmental groups don't condone the hunting but tolerate it as an intrinsic part of a subsistence culture.

It's not really subsistence any more, but tribal elders say chicken or steak bought in a shop is not enough - their bodies crave whale blubber.

At the spring whaling festival, everyone rejoices and shares in the harvest.

Local meats are cooked and served, including caribou stew and goose soup. But the main attraction is boiled whale meat, including the giant mammals' organs.

Rajesh Mirchandani samples the food on offer at the festival - including whale intestines

Dismembered parts of a bowhead whale are on display, laid out on a wooden pallet in the middle of a makeshift arena by the Arctic shore. It is cut into brick-sized chunks and distributed.

People will savour its meat through the long frozen winter.

But many here worry the whales will bypass Barrow's waters if offshore oil exploration goes ahead, and they have filed lawsuits to stop it.

Oil company Shell has spent billions of dollars to lease tracts of seabed from the US government and drilling should have started by now.

But the Obama administration stepped in and called a temporary halt after the BP oil spill thousands of miles away in the Gulf of Mexico.

An Alaskan child at the Naluqatak festival in Barrow Adults and children celebrate at the Naluqatak festival

The delay effectively puts back Shell's plans till next year but the company says it will be back.

"The Gulf of Mexico may have been a wake-up call for some but not for Shell," says Pete Slaiby, vice-president of Shell Alaska.

"We would not have put the money down on these leases had we not felt we could go in and drill these leases safely."

Earlier this year, before the order to postpone, Shell reassured the US government it could work safely in Arctic waters.

It said it would be drilling at a depth of 150ft (46m), not 5,000ft as in the case of BP's leaking well, making it easier to deal with a blowout.

Shell also pointed out the cold Arctic waters would render any spilled oil more viscous, so it would not spread as far. (The converse is that the warm waters and sunshine in the Gulf of Mexico help break down oil.)

And the company said it would position state-of-the-art vessels by the drill site so it could respond to a spill within an hour.

Contamination fears

Critics argue no response plan can predict the rapidly-changing conditions of the Arctic and say response vessels may be useless if a spill happens when the sea is choked with ice, as it is much of the year.

Bowhead whale bones at the Naluqatak festival Many Native Alaskans fear contaminating Alaskan waters would impact hunting

Nevertheless, the majority of Alaskans favour offshore drilling in the Arctic - the state derives 90% of its revenue from oil and gas.

Even though the waters are controlled by the federal government, many, including some among the indigenous people, believe Alaska's Arctic Ocean reserves will bring jobs and could help reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

But in Barrow and other Native Alaskan towns, most don't want to risk contaminating the Arctic waters.

"The ocean is our garden," one woman here said. "It's where we get our food from. Not just the whale but the seal and walrus as well, and all the other stuff."

A woman handing out whale meat said: "If you look at the Gulf of Mexico, they were cutting corners. If they do that here they'll be cutting our livelihood. We can't have that."

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