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Whaling in the shadow of oil

Shell's plans to drill offshore in the Alaskan Arctic in 2012 has divided the native communities of the North Slope Borough. The tense run off battle in the Borough elections has reflected a community that is torn by the proposed offshore development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Alaska's Arctic people now stand at a crossroads between continued benefits from industry generated revenues and protecting the marine environment they have depended on for thousands of years. The oil giant is soon to announce if it will continue to deploy for next year's open water season after already spending 4 billion dollars in preparation. Royal Dutch Shell have received the preliminary permits to drill in the Chukchi sea next year, but have been set back by various legal challenges. The fear of an oil spill damaging the cornerstone of the Inupiaq culture, the whale, has caused a split among the native communities who have traditionally hunted whales for subsistence.​​

"As mayor of the north slope borough, so help me God," are the the final words of oath from Charlotte Brower's mouth as she is certified as Mayor of the North Slope borough. On Wednesday she took over from Edward Itta after a dramatic finale. After an hour of uncertainty the assembly chambers in Barrow erupted into applause as the new Mayor was announced. The North Slope Borough Mayor elections may have appeared standard at first glance. Jobs, day care, education, respect for elders and pride for the youth have all been campaign focus points, but one issue stood out above all others. Offshore oil has been the defining election issue at the top of the world in a competition that still remains fierce even after the new mayor has been certified.

Ex Mayor Ahmaogak Sr, the other candidate in the election run off has contested the results, citing irregularities in vote counting, missing ballots and  counting discrepancies. The last minute charges brought by Ahmaogak have not specifically mentioned when or where the violations have taken place or who has been responsible for the irregularities. After legal wrangling about whether the winner could be certified or an investigation should ensue, a unanimous roll call vote at 3:18pm certified that Charlotte Brower had won with 1022 votes to Ahmaogak's 960.

The mayor of the North Slope Borough could arguably be one of the most powerful political positions in the United States. The regional Alaska municipality covers the northern most part of the United States, a vast area of almost 95,000 square miles with a population of about 10,000 Inupiat spread amongst eight small cities.  How to balance industrial development and the traditional subsistence culture of the native the Inupiaq people has been the key issue of the election.

Royal Dutch Shell have already received some of the required permits to drill in the Chukchi sea in next year. The oil giant are expected to soon announce if they will continue to deploy in preparation for 2012's open water season. Shell has been set back by various legal challenges, one from the outgoing Mayor Edward Itta in 2007 who led a lawsuit against the Shell's development over concerns the drilling would harm the environment.

“I have taxed oil and gas property since 1972,” says George Ahmaogak Sr leaning back in his leather sofa next to a black folder with a Shell emblem on it. The borough gets more than 95 percent of its revenues from oil and gas industry land taxes. With his loud, strong voice he explains that the living standard is much better since oil was  found on his ancestors land. “The first exploratory well in Prudhoe Bay was drilled on my fathers land. I haven’t seen any of the money yet though,” he laughs. Mr Ahmaogak has a close relation with the oil giant Shell who now plan to drill for oil in Chuckhi and Beaufort seas. In 2006 Shell hired him as their Alaska community affairs manager.

While Ahmaogak was working for Shell, his wife Maggie Ahmaogak, 61, was working for the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Maggie Ahmaogak is accused of embezzling $475,000 from the Commission, where she served as the group’s executive director for 17 years until 2007 when she got fired after financial irregularities were uncovered. An issue that has hungover Ahmaogak's election campaign and lingered in the voters conscious. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is in place to protect the interests of the subsistence whaling community.

Ahmoagak's rival Charlotte Brower will now lead America's largest Borough during the next three years. "I want each of you to always remember the decisions I will make, are the ones that I believe to be in the best interest of the people," said an emotional Brower after being certified in.  All these years, not only throughout the campaign, I have listened closely to each and every one of you about your concerns, your likes and dislikes. I will continue to do so as Mayor," added Brower.

Arriving to the two different households in the centre of Barrow reflects the difference in the two run off candidates characters.  Brower's house, a single story with a snow machine, a small car and pile of hunting equipment outside is vastly contrasted to the large two story house surrounded by hummers, 4x4s, boats and a dazzling red 'vote Ahmaogak' sign of George Senior. With the voting so tight, these candidates represent the spilt among the 10,000 Inupiaq population of the borough and a contentious issue that is tearing them apart. The vast majority of the North Slope borough’s revenues come from land tax paid by oil companies. The native people now stand at the crossroads of  income from the industry and the marine environment they have depended on for thousands of years. George Ahmaogak Sr, former Alaska affairs manager for Shell, admits that one oil spill could devastate the whole ecosystem outside the Arctic coast. Mr Ahmaogak has already a close relation with the oil giant Shell who now plan to drill for oil in Chuckhi and Beufort seas. In 2006 Shell hired him as their Alaska community affairs manager. "Oh yes, it will wipe out peoples hopes and dreams. I want somewhere between two and three billion dollars put aside in a fund under a special good neighbour policy. If something happens we can pay our whalers to go to the Canadian coast to hunt whales,” he proposes.

Walking into the Brower home has the feel of a grandmothers house rather than the borough Mayor's. A welcoming, “come right in,” is shouted after a tap on the door. The smell of fresh coffee and bread instantly washes over as the door opens to Mrs Brower sat calmly sowing on her sofa while her husband Eugene, ex mayor and president of the whaling commission offers a bone crushing hand shake. “I oppose offshore drilling, but the Federal Government has leased the land offshore and I will work very hard to protect our subsistence resources and our way of life.” says Brower.

“The Mayor must protect the whaling from the outside forces that are dictated to us.” says Charlotte’s husband Eugene, president of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Eugene Brower is troubled by the fact that an oil spill has never been cleaned up in Arctic waters before. "All we want is for our federal government to work with the oil industry to put mitigation measures into place to protect the environment and the resources that we subsist from." say Eugene Brower. "Our livelihood is very unique in this world, we are an endangered species now." adds Brower.

George Ahmaogak's biggest concern for the future are the big debts the federal government has. “I have always spoken out against offshore drilling and personally I don’t think they are ready for it yet. But on the other hand new oil has to be found and our society is dependent on taxes from the industry for our services like hospitals and schools. It is very expensive to live up here,” he says. AHmaogak believes there should be spill mitigation funds, but many argue the cost can not compare to the potential damage to the environment. For the animals and Alaska’s native peoples, the development could mean the end of their day.

“Shell tell us they have the equipment to clean up an oil spill. But I am not born yesterday; I know the conditions out there,” says Caroline Cannon, who has fought the plans for over five years as President of Point Hope tribal government. Canon and Point Hope backed by a group of 12 environmental organisations have again delayed Shell in the courts. By challenging the validity of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement’s conditional approval of Shell’s exploration plan, the decision is now held up in the courts again till December. The petition states that the BOEMRE decision violates the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The whale is central to Inupiaq culture and Brower being elected Mayor reflects the concern of the communities to protect that tradition. “When you think of the damage it can do to the ocean,” says Steve Oomittuk, mayor of Point Hope city. “We are ocean people, most of our food comes from the ocean. The whale is centre of our lives. Without it we wouldn’t be who we are today,” he continues. Before Steve Oomittuk was elected mayor, he used to work for the comms centre in the community house. The operation is sponsored by Shell and has been set up in other native communities along Alaska’s northern coast to monitor sea traffic and offering jobs to the locals. “They install radios in peoples boats, but some refuse to take them as they see it as a bribe. They don’t want anything from Shell. What good is a radio if our culture is destroyed,” he adds. Oomittuk was brought up by his grand parents and cherishes the history of his people. “The hunger for oil is on our doorstep again, threatening our subsistence way of life,” he says referring to the commercial whalers that arrived in the village in 1871 hunting whales for their oil.

Whale biologist Craig George gets a few minutes to measure the animal before metre-long, well sharped knifes cut through the black skin and blubber of the whale. Teams of people swiftly drag huge bits of the animal in to different piles. "It is nine metres and about four years old. Which is perfect science wise," says George, dressed in orange waders and a worn cap.

He has been studying the bowhead whale for forty years. 12 000 - 13 000 whales migrate past Barrow in Northern Alaska twice every year in Spring and in autumn. "This hunt is sustainable," says Craig George and continues; "For the moment we are confident the whale stock are increasing, but there is exceptional changes going on here in the north." 

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the World. The shrinking sea ice has brought increased sea traffic, more commercial fishing vessels and plans of offshore oil drilling. "It is hard to put things in a future perspective, but both climate change and ocean acidification are spooky threats. And if they start drilling for oil out there…," Craig George pauses. “An oil spill in the spring, when all the animals pass through a small corridor, that would be an absolute nightmare," he continues. 

The nine metre long whale caught by the Aiken whaling crew, continues a tradition that has sustained the Inupiat for millennia. “To receive that whale through your boat to give to the community is the biggest honor a whaling captain can have. You don't brag, you humble yourself before this great animal," saya Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission president Eugene Brower. Oil giant Shell are soon expected to announce if they will continue to prepare for offshore drilling in 2012, despite not receiving all the necessary permits.  Many Inupiat hunters are concerned about Shell's lack of spill response capabilities if the final permits are granted to drill offshore in the Arctic's Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The proposed offshore drill sites will be in the path of the bowhead whale's migration route.

Despite the impacts of climate change being visible in the Arctic, the importance of oil to the to the communities of the North Slope Borough is acutely clear. The native Inupiaq people who have been living in this arctic region surviving as subsistence hunters for over two millennia are torn by the offshore plans.“Ten years ago all people were against offshore drilling. Now it is different, but the majority are  still saying no,” says Johnny Aiken, executive director of Alaska Eskimo Whaling commission. The fear in lost revenues as the oil in Prudhoe Bay declines has played part in weakening the opposition to offshore drilling.

There are many powerful parties that will win in the short term from development, including the state and the residents of the North Slope. A Shell commissioned study by consulting company Northern Economics and the University of Alaska Anchorage, estimate $176 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues  will be generated over the 45 year period till 2057. $3.7 billion of that total will go to the North Slope Borough. The state of Alaska will collect $4.8 billion while the federal government will receive $161.3 billion. 

According to George Ahmaogak Sr and his voluntary campaign adviser John Tichotsky, ex international policy adviser to Roman Abramovich, the Inupiaq people are unique when it comes to adapt to new circumstances. “The Inupiaq subsistence lifestyle has to be balanced with the cash economy we have to live in. We have to work hand in hand with the industry. The U.S government sold the leases to Shell and environmental groups made some frivolous lawsuits but they lost their day in court,” he says.

It appears adapting to the oil industry is something they believe is inevitable. Judging by this election result they have voted for the protection of their culture and someone who may not have experience with dealing with the oil companies, but someone who has the best interests of their culture at heart.

See also

Point Hope. Alaska, U.S.

Point Hope is located on the western coast of Alaska on the edge of the Chukchi sea, just south of lease 193 where oil giant Shell hope to extract oil to the value of $2.4 trillion. Point Hope's tribal government backed by a group of 12 environmental organisations have led the opposition against Shell. The city is becoming increasingly split over the issue, as gifts and promises of jobs from oil companies seep in.

Stranded Bears. Alaska, U.S.

As the Arctic sea ice retreats over 700 miles from the shore in the autumn, bears must either head north or swim south to land as the ice breaks up. The amount of polar bears coming to land is increasing but scientists are still unsure of the single cause. In recent years, bears have spent a longer period onshore, during which they are cut off from their natural seal prey and scientists anticipate that the number of bears onshore may increase as sea ice loss continues.

The Nenets of Yamal Peninsula. Russia.

The nomadic Nenets tribes of the Yamal Peninsula have retained their traditional culture and simple way of life for over a thousand years. Surviving Stalinist Russia and the interests of the gas drilling company Gazprom they now face a new threat, climate change. The permafrost landscape they have survived on is now beginning to dramatically thaw.