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Slick operators

Pouring oil on frozen waters: Prudhoe Bay, operated by BP, is by far the largest oilfield in the US. Sprawling across the North Slope, it currently produces about 400,000 barrels of oil a day, with an estimated 2 billion still to exploit.

Photo by: Bryan and Cherry Alexander Photography

‘The oil industry routinely sends Santa Claus into the village with presents for the kids,’ reveals Robert Thompson with a will-they-stop-at-nothing roll of the eyes. We’re sitting in the Waldo Arms, Kaktovik’s makeshift hotel. It’s more of a sprawling shack and the heating isn’t working in my room – thank goodness for thermal underwear – but my warm welcome here has made up for it.

‘The companies send us watermelons and fruit,’ Robert continues. ‘They have come in and put radios on the whale boats. They provide free gasoline. They send people here to be friends with the locals – Exxon came to town for high school graduation and gave laptops to every graduate! It’s public relations, part of the strategy. They don’t really care about us, they just want the oil.’

Robert – a Vietnam veteran and renowned Inupiaq guide – has long been a leading figure in the battle to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His passionate opposition has taken him many thousands of miles from the homeland he knows so intimately. He’s lobbied in Washington and briefed investors in London over the hazards of oil development. He even went to Shell’s Annual General Meeting in The Hague to confront the company’s President over its plans to drill offshore of the pristine coastal plain I had zoomed across just the day before. ‘I asked if an oil spill could be cleaned up in the Arctic Ocean. They were very evasive. They said things like: “Well, we will use the latest technology,  the latest scientific methods. Every effort will be made not to have a spill.” But they won’t say in public: “If we have a spill we can clean it up.” Because they know they can’t.’

For Robert, stopping the oil companies is a matter of survival. ‘An oil spill could be the end of the culture that we’ve had for thousands of years. It could mean the extinction of marine mammals. The oil is still toxic from the Exxon Valdez spill in Southern Alaska 20 years ago. Most likely in the Arctic Ocean it will be toxic for even longer, because the water is colder. We have to come up with something besides oil. It’s simple!’

Except that it isn’t simple. Not up here, anyway.

Lying and buying

Ever since the largest oil field in North America was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, less than 200 miles west along the Arctic coastline, Kaktovik has found itself catapulted into the eye of a monstrous storm. The question of whether to drill in the Refuge – the last five per cent of Alaska’s North Slope not already open to oil and gas development – has polarized the US. For 30 years the debate has regularly surfaced every time there is a vote in Washington (Congress and Senate have to approve any drilling) or a Presidential election. The people of Kaktovik have been caught in the crossfire, used and abused by both sides of the battle to justify their positions. It has painfully divided the community, which has found its internal disagreements aired on the world stage via the mainstream media, hungry for a new angle on a story that just keeps running.

Robert explains that feeling in the village is not as clear-cut as either the ‘drill, baby, drill’-ers or the environmentalists would like to make out. ‘People here are somewhat supportive of on-shore oil development. They have been told for years that they have to support it so the companies don’t go offshore. I don’t think you’ll find anybody here who wants offshore. But they have been lied to.’

The villagers have been showered with verbal assurances and financial sweeteners by oil multinationals that see the immense PR and legal value in claiming their consent or, failing that, ensuring their dependence. Practically all the modern improvements that have made life here at the top of the world immeasurably easier have been paid for with oil money. For some in the community the revenue and jobs are simply too valuable to risk losing. ‘Some people just don’t care, they just want the money,’ admits Robert. ‘Essentially, what Shell and others are doing is buying people off. But actually, I still think the majority do not want onshore.’

Tricked into capitalism

In order to understand how Alaska’s native people became so entangled in this web of corporate interests I needed a history lesson. I got it from a determined young Gwich’in woman called Faith Gemmill. Faith is from Arctic Village – the only other community within the Refuge, at its southern edge. The people of Arctic Village have long been unified in their opposition to drilling; they’re convinced it will disrupt the caribou herd on which they depend.

Faith co-ordinates an organization called REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands.) When I visited her office she showed me on a map all the battles against dirty development being fought by REDOIL members across the State. I learned of the fight to prevent the poisonous discharges from Prudhoe Bay, which allows over 400 spills and emits 70,000 tons of toxic pollutants a year. I saw that, just along the coast, there’s the threat of a massive new coalmine and a port to export most of it to China. I heard about the oil wells that have encircled the North Slope village of Nuiqsut, causing asthma and cancer, and making their caribou meat turn yellow and their fish taste funny. I discovered that some native communities are voluntarily abstaining from hunting endangered animals and yet are unable to prevent the industrial pollution that continues to kill them off. I got the sense of a people under siege.

Faith described the inauspicious episode in Alaska’s past that paved the way for today’s onslaught. After the discovery of oil in 1968 the US Government realized that, in order to access it, it needed to settle outstanding land claims with the region’s indigenous residents. So it unilaterally passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, under which it granted ownership of a portion of native lands, but not to each community’s traditional governing body. Instead, it put their destiny in the hands of native corporations. These specially created entities were not mandated to operate for the wellbeing of the people, to preserve their culture or protect their subsistence hunting grounds, explained Faith. They were simply required to turn a profit. The State and Federal Government claimed the lands that were left and began to develop them, building the Trans-Alaska pipeline to Valdez to funnel the Arctic’s black gold to market.

The sting in the tail is that if these native corporations ever fail to make a profit, any other corporation – including foreign multinationals – can buy ownership of their land. And so, not wanting to hand sovereignty directly to the likes of Exxon, they have little choice but to keep driving development and building partnerships with oil, mining and timber companies.

‘It was an act to assimilate us, to divide us so that we were not strong politically, and to access our resources,’ pronounced Faith. ‘By stripping away our land and giving it to profit-making corporations it forced native people to learn how to operate in a corporate world. It was a trick, a way to take from us the values we had, and impose on us this Western system of corporate capitalism.’ And it worked a treat.

Consequently, Robert Thompson has little time for Kaktovik’s native corporation. ‘The corporation leaders have represented themselves as leaders of our people. But they are not.’ In 1983 they sold the rights to drill onshore in the Refuge to BP and Chevron-Texaco for $30 million. Ever since then the companies have been clamouring for the say-so from Capitol Hill to go ahead. ‘So essentially, when Congress votes on this issue they are voting for the bottom line of BP,’ concludes Robert. ‘That should be out there for everyone to see, instead of hiding behind the rhetoric of “well, the natives want it.”’

Deep divisions

The indigenous people of the Alaskan Arctic are not alone in wrestling with the paradox of profiting from the very industries that threaten their survival. As climate change makes the Arctic’s plentiful but hitherto unattainable natural resources suddenly more accessible, massive industrial development is planned in all the northern nations. The ensuing tension between preservation and profit was laid bare very publicly at the Indigenous Summit on Climate Change I attended in Anchorage.

A detailed summit declaration was being painstakingly negotiated but there was one sticking point. The majority of indigenous delegates, representing communities all over the world, wanted to call for a moratorium on fossil fuel developments on indigenous lands – a radical yet reasonable demand considering the damage being wreaked locally and globally. But representatives of the Arctic region blocked it, insisting that this infringed their economic rights. Emotions ran high and an extra day of negotiations was hastily scheduled, with a very awkward closing press conference slap bang in the middle of the disarray.

Ultimately, the stalemate could not be overcome. The deep division on this issue had to be written into the final declaration; a sad outcome from a gathering which was otherwise marked by a powerful unity. According to Faith Gemmill it was the Saami people from Norway and the Inuit from Canada – two countries with grand plans for future resource exploitation – who were most vociferous in blocking the moratorium, even though other Arctic delegates supported it.

Faith Gemmill and Robert Thompson make their point at a climate justice protest in Montreal.

Photo by: Clayton Thomas-Mueller

Success stories

So is the plunder of the Arctic for the remainder of its riches a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily. Coalitions of native communities, environmental organizations, legal experts and elected representatives have racked up some significant victories. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a case in point. It has been successfully protected for 30 years by just such an alliance – albeit, on a few occasions, only by the skin of its teeth. Now, Robert believes the new US administration will provide them with some much-needed breathing space after the relentless pressure of the oil-obsessed Bush years. ‘If the Senate did pass a bill, Obama would veto it. So as long as he’s there, we’re ok. And we’re now working to get a “Wilderness Bill” passed to give the Refuge permanent protection.’

Faith has other success stories to tell. ‘We stopped Shell Oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea. Last November, the courts ruled that the company violated environmental laws and didn’t consider the impacts on our subsistence way of life in their quick manœuvres to develop offshore. And the native people of Point Hope have been vocal in opposing development in the Chukchi Sea, which they call their garden. They just had a big victory: a ruling on their case found that the whole US Government offshore drilling plan is illegal!’

But ultimately, Faith is convinced that the answer lies in more systemic change. ‘I’m hoping to see the sovereign tribes of Alaska come together and restore what was taken from us. It’s a discussion that is happening,’ she reveals. ‘Our people are realizing that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was an injustice and we have to restore our rights. Leaders are talking now about how these native corporations can be put under the jurisdiction of the tribes.’

In the meantime, Robert doesn’t think we should lay all the blame at the feet of corporations. ‘The oil industry are the bad guys, for sure. But in reality they are only supplying what people want. Until we get people on to something else, this problem will be with us for a while.’ So, to prove to his community that there are alternatives to oil, this summer he’s putting up a wind turbine in Kaktovik. ‘You’ve got to do what you can do,’ he shrugs. 


The Cold Rush
The Arctic is estimated to contain up to 25 per cent of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves.

  • 240 billion barrels of oil and natural gas are already in production.

  • The region holds a further 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas 1.

  • Unique geological sequences, volcanism, tectonic faults and glaciers have also generated valuable mineral and metal deposits including zinc, copper, nickel, lead, titanium, uranium, diamonds and gold.

Drill baby drill

At temperatures below -50˚C, thick ice and permafrost previously made Arctic exploration impracticable. Now global warming is allowing unprecedented drilling access –  aided by new seismic technologies for mapping reservoirs, nimble drilling methods and tougher steel ships and rigs. It is also creating more icebergs, increasing the risk of spills.

  • Unlike conventional vertical drilling, ‘slant drilling’ involves sinking a well nearby and ‘snaking’ it towards the reservoir, avoiding ice or permafrost. ‘Designer wells’ can turn 270 degrees to reach around geological obstructions.

  • Norway’s StatoilHydro is developing an Arctic tanker with a carrying capacity of 600,000 barrels of oil (tankers at the moment carry up to 120,000). Russia is developing a drill rig to withstand ice floes.

  • Shell, Chevron, BP, Total, ConocoPhillips, Syncrude Canada, StatoilHydro, Norsk Hydro and ExxonMobil, along with Russian state companies, dominate exploration in the region.

The shape of things to come

The Shtokman field
One of the largest natural gas fields in the world, in the Russian Barents Sea. The first drilling platform is planned for 2010 with underwater gas extraction facilities and floating removable platforms to avoid icebergs.

Only six offshore wells have been drilled in Greenland. Oil production is at a very early stage but Scottish-based Cairn Energy has secured licences to drill offshore covering an area of 52,000 sq km.

Snøhvit (Snow White) gas fields
Operated by StatoilHydro, this 21-well project in the Barents Sea north of Norway feeds gas from the seabed to nearby Melkøya, where it is cooled and transported as liquid natural gas. It has a potential production life of 40 years.

Chukchi and Beaufort Seas
The US Minerals Management Service leased 29 million acres of the Chukchi offshore shelf north of Alaska last year at a cost of $3.4 billion. Five exploration wells have been drilled
but oil production could still be 10 to 15 years away. 

Research by Adam Green

  • US Geological Survey, ‘Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle’, 2008.
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