Eskimos Cool to Offshore Drilling
Inupiat hunters seek to preserve some of their traditional role in harsh yet fragile environment. OIL AND ICE
THEIR boats emerging from the clammy twilight mist, Eskimo hunters return to town after searching for migrating bowhead whales. It's a ritual that has been followed each fall and spring by untold generations of hunters and whales. The Chukchi Sea laps Barrow's west-facing beach, where the hunters land their boats and are greeted in the autumn evenings by wives and friends. Off the tip of Point Barrow, a tiny peninsula jutting northeast of town, the Beaufort Sea stretches toward the North Pole. The arctic seas are rich with fish, whales, and other marine mammals, and have served for more than 5,000 years as the icy larder for Inupiat Eskimos in America's northernmost settlement.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Beneath the now-frozen seas lie other riches - billions of barrels of oil, according to industry and the federal government.
Technological and economic limitations have deterred past development here. But the crisis in the Middle East and drilling bans off the California and Florida coasts have spurred new interest in this oil frontier.
The United States Minerals Management Service (MMS) leased vast Beaufort and Chukchi areas in 1988. On some of the distant Chukchi tracts, Shell Western Exploration and Production Inc. has drilled three exploratory wells. Texaco and Chevron USA Inc. have plans in the coming summers to drill exploratory wells some 50 miles offshore in the arctic seas.
MMS plans next year to lease more acreage - 21 million acres in the Beaufort and 23 million in Chukchi - all the way to the 200-mile federal limit.
For Inupiat hunter and oil explorer alike, the territory is treacherous. Barrow has sunk into its yearly 67 days of total darkness. Wind-chill pushes temperatures well below minus-40 degrees. Solitary humans venturing onto the pack ice make easy prey for roving polar bears. Walking here is not recommended; instead, residents stay at home eating whale, walrus, seal, and caribou meat harvested months ago.
So far, oil companies have limited their Arctic offshore development to the safer and shallower shore-hugging areas of the Beaufort, where bottom-founded drill rigs pierce solid ice during the long winter and cease operations in the summer.
In deep waters farther offshore, however, companies must drill from floating vessels in the brief ice-free season. Working in the variable two-month open-water season isn't easy, industry officials admit.
``It's a pretty harsh environment. But that's where the oil reserves are,'' says Tom Cook, Chevron's Alaska exploration representative.
To the Inupiat Eskimos, the drilling plans are troubling. They have compromised with the oil industry in the past, but since the 1970s have opposed plans to drill in areas far off their beaches.
With 3,200 residents, Barrow is one of the world's largest Eskimo settlements and the metropolis of the Montana-sized North Slope Borough. The people here say they have successfully balanced modern American and ancient Inupiat cultures.
Today's hunters launch their boats in the shadow of modern buildings that make up Barrow's skyline. The beach, strewn with semi-buried whale and walrus bones left over from butchering, skirts a modern city where new trucks and heated buses ply the streets.
Administrators toil in the offices of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Eskimo-owned enterprise with 1989 assets of $99 million, and the borough government, which has a $310 million budget to serve 6,000 far-flung residents. When the bowheads migrate past North America's northern tip, office workers here leave their desks, don parkas, and pilot the boats that make up the local whaling convoy.