Apprehension in Alaska

Congress' vote to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling has one local village worried about the impact on its traditional way of life.

By Julian Borger
Published March 29, 2005 4:59PM (EST)

At this time of year the view from Kaktovik is snow white in every direction, leaving little to distinguish the churned pack ice of the Beaufort Sea from the tundra of the Alaskan coastal plain. Even this village, the only human settlement in the 19 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and one of the most remote communities in the U.S., is scarcely visible beneath the drifts left by winter blizzards. From the air it is a barely perceptible dark patch clinging to the northern edge of Alaska.

The sole hint of color in the whole panorama is a thin yellow band on the western horizon. It is the haze drifting in from the oil fields 100 miles up the coast: an unsightly stain on a picture postcard and a possible portent for the refuge.

This month Congress voted to insert a special measure in the federal budget opening the coastal plain (known as Area 1002) for drilling. For the first time in 25 years of struggle over the refuge, the White House and Congress are lined up on the same side, behind the oil industry. The battle is not yet over, however. The Senate vote passed by just 51 to 49, and there are still legislative hoops to be jumped through. There are also doubts about how profitable drilling will be. The oil is thought to be of low quality, and the average estimate is that there is only enough down there to keep the United States going for six months.

As the endgame approaches, the propaganda battle between the environmentalists and the oil lobby heightens, and ground zero in that struggle is the huddle of small wooden houses in Kaktovik.

Standing up on his snowmobile, Bruce Inglangasak, an Inupiat Inuit like most of Kaktovik's 300 residents, traced the mustard-colored line in the western sky with a gloved hand. "When the wind blows from the west, a yellow-brown smog goes right across the horizon. In the summer, when I go fishing, it burns my eyes."

The oil fields at Prudhoe Bay have not turned out to be the ecological showpieces the Inupiat were promised. More oil was found than expected, and the drilling rigs, roads and pipelines now dominate the landscape. There is an average of more than one toxic spill a day; 43,000 tons of nitrogen oxides are released into the air each year, more than in Washington, D.C.

"It's not just the air," Inglangasak said. "Every time it rains our fish get it and our whales get it. You can feel the difference when you hold the fish now. The flesh is not as firm as it once was."

Global warming is taking a toll. Extraordinarily, it was mild enough in January for rain to fall, forming a layer of ice over the vegetation that feeds the caribou. The pack ice has retreated so fast in recent summers that dozens, possibly hundreds, of polar bears are stranded on the coastal plain, forcing them to look for winter dens onshore, nearer humans and their oil rigs.

Inglangasak is a hunter, whaler and fisherman, like most Inupiat men, and the changes he sees around him fill him with apprehension. But when the conversation turns to the big question of the day -- should the refuge be opened to oil companies? -- he has an answer ready: "I'm all for it." For all his unease about the contamination of his ancestral lands, Inglangasak needs a job. He has an 8-year-old daughter, and hunting and fishing are not enough to keep her clothed, housed and educated.

The prospect of oil rigs in Area 1002 has divided native people of the region. The Gwich'in on the refuge's southern edge are mostly opposed, for fear of what it will do to the Porcupine caribou herd (named after a nearby river) on which they depend for much of their protein. As traditional whalers, the Inupiat rely less on the caribou and, living on the northern edge of the plain, will benefit more directly from employment and investment.

Inglangasak would prefer to get a job as a guide and likes the idea of ecotourism, but for all the refuge's fame as a symbol of pristine wilderness, very few tourists come to see its polar bears, caribou and musk ox. It is too remote and its climate too harsh. Those intrepid enough to make the journey are usually dropped and collected by plane on airstrips in the mountainous heart of the refuge, never passing through Kaktovik. The Dance With a Polar Bear guest house, opened in hope of a green tourist boom, closed recently.

"People talk about tourism but it hasn't amounted to much," Lon Sonsalla, the mayor, said. "Our kids need something, and right now oil is about all we've got."

Hunting and whaling are still central to Inupiat culture, but the days of the subsistence economy are gone. Kaktovik's wooden houses are heated, at great cost, by the town's diesel-burning power plant. Every house was recently linked to a water and sewage system, at a cost of nearly $400,000 each. None of the modern world's amenities comes cheap north of the Arctic Circle.

When Kaktovik was snowed in for a week by a fearsome January blizzard, a federal emergency was declared and millions of dollars earmarked for repairs. The village's very survival is underwritten by state and borough funds, which in turn depend on oil.

Inglangasak believes the oil industry will have improved its technology and cleaned up its act by the time it moves in. Other villagers point to the increase in the central Arctic caribou herd that migrates through the Prudhoe area. "[The oil industry] seems to be fattening them," Thomas Agiak, an Inupiat elder, said. "Our Porcupine herd is much skinnier. There are so many caribou around the airport there, it sometimes stops the plane from landing."

But as the yellow blemish spreads along the western skyline, the mood in Kaktovik is beginning to change. The village no longer presents the united front it did a year ago. Reports of ill health in Nuiqsut, the Inupiat settlement near the Prudhoe Bay oil field, have caused alarm. The mayor said there had been a 600 percent increase in respiratory complaints in recent years.

More worrying still from Kaktovik's point of view, the governor of Alaska, Frank Murkowski, announced last month that the state might begin selling oil leases off the coast of the refuge. The Inupiat believe offshore drilling would drive away the bowhead whale, which nine crews from the village hunt every September. The meat and blubber provide much of Kaktovik's sustenance for the rest of the year.

A petition against oil exploration that was circulated in the village this month got 56 signatures, nearly half the voting-age population. Robert Thompson, an Inupiat hunter and guide who is leading the backlash, said the tide was turning against the oil companies. "There's a lot of people changing their mind about this; now they're thinking [the oil rigs] might go offshore," he said.

He is a bustling Vietnam veteran who has made himself a thorn in the side of the Inupiat hierarchy, whom he sees as a self-serving elite who have sold out for oil money. "They call themselves whaling captains, but when it comes to protecting whales they don't do anything," he said.

Unlike his fellow villagers, Thompson sets little store by the authorities' promise to tread lightly on Area 1002 by using only ice roads and drilling only in winter."There isn't enough water in 1002 to do ice roads. And when they talk about ice roads they're just talking about exploration. When they start drilling they'll start building gravel roads."

In Prudhoe Bay the supposedly "roadless" oil fields are now latticed with gravel. "Roadless development never meant no roads," the Bureau of Land Management said recently, "only that the construction of permanent roads would be minimized."

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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