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Shell Oil is planning to begin oil drilling off the north coast of Alaska this summer. And those who support the new exploration say it will increase domestic oil production, reducing the need to rely on foreign supplies. Those opposed say it puts the fragile Arctic environment at risk.
The debate has put native Alaskans in a very uncomfortable spot. They can't seem to agree on which is more important - oil revenues or environmental protection. That tension has been on display as members of the Inupiat tribe have traveled here to Washington, D.C. to argue their positions. And NPR's Richard Harris has more.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The last place on earth you might expect to find a pro-whaling press conference is in a Greenpeace meeting room. But that actually took place, thanks to alliances formed to fight Arctic oil drilling. Environmental activists know one of their strongest arguments is to speak out to protect a traditional culture. That includes whale hunts.
That's how Caroline Cannon came to be at Greenpeace. She's the former Mayor of Point Hope, which she calls the whaling capital.
CAROLINE CANNON: We rely on the whale, the bowhead whale. It is our identity. It is who we are. And the thought of offshore drilling, or an oil spill, is very terrifying.
HARRIS: She and her companions portrayed this whaling activity as part of their subsistence culture.
And Point Hope resident Rosemary Ahtuangaruak says hunting is not simply part of the Inupiat heritage.
ROSEMARY AHTUANGARUAK: We need the foods from our lands and waters to feed our families. We cannot afford to buy the foods that come up to the Arctic. The cost of transportation increase these costs, so that it could take your whole paycheck to try to feed your family from the store.
HARRIS: But that culture has seen a dramatic shift in recent decades. And it's because of oil money. The median household income in Point Hope is $77,000. Native corporations have invested billions of dollars from oil revenue and now benefit from that income. In fact, there's so much oil money in Alaska, citizens get a check from the state every year instead of paying income tax.
Edward Itta spoke at another Washington event about Arctic drilling. He's the former mayor of the North Slope Borough. That's a vast area of northern Alaska, including Point Hope. He campaigned for office opposing offshore oil development.
EDWARD ITTA: My initial attitude had been not only no, but hell no. Over my dead body.
HARRIS: But once he got into office, he realized what it took to keep the enormous county running.
ITTA: Our tax base is based on oil and gas. There's nothing else there. We have schools, airports, roads, landfills, health facilities, hospitals, decent homes - keep warm now and have light and power, which when I grew up, we didn't have.
HARRIS: And the North Slope's biggest source of oil, Prudhoe Bay, is running low. The Trans-Alaska pipeline is working at one-third its capacity, and oil revenues are shrinking. That leaves the potentially vast deposits of offshore oil. Itta is worried about a spill, of course. But he seemed more worried that Shell might load offshore oil directly onto tankers, and not pay the fees to pipe the oil through Alaska.
ITTA: If there was no economic benefit up there, we would be opposed, period.
HARRIS: Mayor Itta's point of view is not news to the people from Point Hope. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak says, if it comes down to choosing her traditional culture or oil money, she'll take the culture.
AHTUANGARUAK: Others have goals of lofty wants out there. But when it's the goals of protecting who and what we are as a people, and keeping us healthy in our tradition and cultures, this is a conflict that we cannot meet.
HARRIS: And she says, the oil will eventually be gone. What will they do after that?
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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