Local Opinion Mixed on Arctic Drilling

Drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is again up for discussion in Congress. For decades, oil development has had the strong backing of the Inupiat Eskimo communities that dot Alaska's North Slope. But that support is beginning to erode.

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Once again, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the subject of debate in the Congress. For decades, oil development has had the strong backing of the Inupiat Eskimo communities that dot Alaska's north slope. But as Elizabeth Arnold reports, that support is beginning to erode.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

I'm standing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It's well below zero here and there's nothing in every direction but wind-sculpted snow. This place has been described by those who want to drill for oil here as a wasteland and by others who want to keep oil development out as pristine. But really it's neither. There's no sign today of the thousands of caribou that migrate here every spring except in the distance, the flicker of headlights of a hunter heading out on a snowmobile.

(Soundbite of snow crunching underfoot)

ARNOLD: Some 200 Inupiat Eskimos live here on the northern edge of the refuge in the tiny village of Koktovik(ph). Walking into town through dry squeaky snow, there are few signs of life. The yards of compact wooden houses are littered with sleds and tangled dogs, whale bones and snowmobile parts.

(Soundbite of a dog barking)

ARNOLD: The fate of Koktovik and this snowbound landscape that surrounds it rests four time zones away in Congress. The steadfast support of the Inupiat people here has long been cited as rationale for drilling in the refuge. Oil has been the economic backbone since Prudhoe Bay was developed 25 years ago. But revenues have slowed in recent years as oil production has declined. British Petroleum helped build this much-used community center, an oasis of warmth this morning. Inside, next to the mayor's office, is a bustling gaming operation. Six elderly Inupiat women in wolverine-trimmed parkas are buying and rapidly shelling hundreds of peel-and-scratch pull tabs. The mayor, Lam Simsala(ph), is selling pull tabs as fast as he can rip open the packages. Taking a break to stretch, he says the proceeds help pay the maintenance bills. An avid supporter of development, he says he'd rather be gambling on finding oil in the refuge.

Mayor LAM SIMSALA (Koktovik): Most of the people who live here want to stay here. And so there has to be some kind of an economy and this will help.

ARNOLD: But the long-standing claim that Inupiats all share this view is being challenged right here in Koktovik. In his living room, surrounded by photos and maps of the refuge, Robert Thompson, a trapper and wilderness guide, says he began the sensitive task of collecting signatures after hearing the concerns of friends and neighbors.

Mr. ROBERT THOMPSON (Trapper and Wilderness Guide): Yeah, we got 63 people here in Koktovik that signed a petition and some people did that knowing full well that it might cost them a lot of money; you know, they'd prefer to keep the culture.

ARNOLD: The culture is based on subsistence, the harvest of fish and game for personal use. Getting your meat, whether it's caribou, seal, moose or whale, means getting your family through the winter. Neighbor Glenda Lord(ph) says worries about subsistence prompted her to sign the petition even though she says it's best to keep your opinions to yourself in such a small community.

Ms. GLENDA LORD (Koktovik Resident): People should know that there are people that live up here that don't believe that oil drilling is the way to go.

ARNOLD: Lord has been a health-care worker here for 20 years, a job made possible by oil money; but with recent cutbacks at the clinic, she was laid off. Even so, she says, the prospect of more oil is not enticing.

Ms. LORD: And it's--yes, it's nice to have money. And, yes, it's a luxury to have all these things. We've got flush toilets and I'm happy to have those, but, to me, my culture is more important.

ARNOLD: Lord and others here have relatives who live in the village of Nuiqsut, which sits near the oil industry's state-of-the art Alpine field. The people of Nuiqsut were told Alpine would be the smallest development footprint ever, but the number of wells, roads, airstrips, gravel pits and pipelines has increased exponentially. The village is now surrounded on three sides by development. Mary Margaret Brower(ph) fears the same thing will happen in Koktovik.

Ms. MARY MARGARET BROWER (Koktovik Resident): I mean, they were promised only a certain amount of acres in the beginning and it's just continuing to grow, continuing to grow.

ARNOLD: Brower says that's why she and others in Koktovik raised their voices.

Ms. BROWER: This is my children's future. My daughter, she loves to go out on the land. She's been taken out since she was a little girl. Same thing with my son. So it's their livelihood, I feel, that's at stake.

ARNOLD: Mayor Simsala dismisses that concern, saying, if Congress approves drilling, Koktovik will have a say in how oil development occurs.

Mayor SIMSALA: Whatever goes on out there we have to be able to be part of that. We need to be at the table and--so that it can be done without any real lasting damages.

(Soundbite of barking dogs)

ARNOLD: Those who oppose drilling here in this frozen village far from Capitol Hill know they're still vastly outnumbered, but their petition has been entered into the congressional record and the signature of 63 Inupiats and their growing uncertainty is now part of the debate. For NPR News, Elizabeth Arnold, Koktovik, Alaska.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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