|THE ESKIMO AND THE OIL MAN
The Battle at the Top of the World for America's Future
New York: Business Plus, May 2012
Edward Itta had a problem. Shell wanted to drill offshore along Alaska's North Shore. The start of offshore drilling for oil along Alaska's North Slope would almost certainly ruin his Iñupiat way of life — but the Iñupiat already depended on wages in a modern economy. The tools they used now to support that way of life — snowmobiles, rifles and handguns; handheld two-way radios, and other items — were products of that economy. So was the fuel to keep those snowmobiles running, and oil production on the North Slope meant good jobs for the natives. Indeed, oil had for decades been the backbone of Alaska's economy, providing a monthly stipend to every citizen in the state. It had also provided many of the public resources on which life depended: hospitals, schools, libraries and other public buildings, rescue services.
Itta had grown up in the old Alaska, travelling by dogsled, hunting bowhead whales from hand-built umiaqs. As Mayor of Barrow, he began from a pure traditionalist position, wanting to prevent any drilling offshore, even exploratory drilling. His opponent was Pete Slaiby, head of Shell Oil's Alaska Venture. Slaiby was currently trying to convince the residents of Barrow and local communities that drilling would not scare away whales or otherwise disturb their lives. At the same time he was wrestling with the byzantine permitting processes required by the federal government.
Reiss relates that the Yupik Eskimos of St. Lawrence Island have almost 100 words for ice. There is Nutemtaq: solid ice floes, good for hunting platforms. Qategbrapak is treacherous soft ice. But the most feared is Ivu — fast-moving ice that can crush a camp in seconds.
This is one more reason why people raised in the lower 48 need to be cautious about working in Alaska, especially in the seas along its north coast.
The past year has shown us that, despite Shell's avowed confidence in its ability to handle whatever the Arctic throws at them, they were woefully unready, with numerous equipment below standards as in July 2012 their recovery barge failed to get Coast Guard certification. The Coast Guard itself lacks important assets in the Arctic, mainly a base to support its three icebreakers there. And the U.S. lags other nations like Norway in readiness for the changes that will soon come to the Arctic seas.
Oil tied together Pete Slaiby and Edward Itta. Both needed it. On that day, when the balance between extracting energy resources and protecting environments preoccupied communities across the US, Itta and Slaiby weighted in as two passionate sides of the issue. Slaiby with confidence. Itta with fear. Slaiby boosting technology. Itta his community. Both men wanted to do the right thing. Both took their jobs seriously. Both had different visions of what their jobs entailed and both knew that the outcome would affect every American, and possibly the world."
– Page 14
But in fact there are far more than two sides to this conflict. There are at least nine: The Iñupiat, the oil interests, and every nation that borders on the Arctic. That includes Russia, Norway, Denmark (through its ownership of Greenland), Sweden, Finland, Canada, and the United States.
And this is one of those rare books that explores every conflicting side and makes its position clear. It is a fine example of system thinking: the mindset that considers all aspects of a situation. That is the only way to understand Mayor Itta's dilemma. Producing oil from offshore wells will almost certainly end the traditional Iñupiat hunting life; but on the other hand not producing oil there will end the flow of oil money that supports so much of the modern side of Iñupiat life. In particular, Reiss illuminates the thicket of regulations Pete Slaiby has to negotiate — parts of which (to extend the metaphor) grow back after he has thought them cut down.
Bob Reiss talked to representatives of the groups most concerned with deciding the future of the North Slope: Alaska's senators and Lieutenant Governor, officials of regulatory agencies; officers of the Coast Guard and other military services; and of course Edward Itta and Pete Slaiby and their associates. He travelled extensively doing his research, even immersing himself in the Iñupiat celebrations that marked the end of Mayor Itta's term. He has covered the ground, and this excellent book demonstrates his thoroughness. Nineteen black-and-white photographs let us glimpse the lives portrayed in the text. There is an extensive index, and it is accurate as far as I checked. Two useful maps appear just after the Acknowledgments. There are no endnotes and no bibliography; but at the end of those Acknowledgments Reiss gives a list of books he recommends to learn about the Arctic.
He also mentions The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven (page 80) and a blog, Bud's Offshore Energy3 (page 238).
I recommend The Eskimo and the Oil Man with full marks and consider it a keeper. That said, however, I feel the author focuses too narrowly on Shell's representative Pete Slaiby. I have no doubt Slaiby is a good man, but his opinion on the concern for safety of the oil industry in general is suspect at best. And Reiss does not defend him effectively by quoting his concern for Shell's own people that suffer accidents.
When critics accused any oil company—not just Shell—of sacrificing safety for profit, Pete would do a fast burn. He'd see his own ghosts, flashing back to England and a day when, in 2002, coming home from a 25-mile copter trip to North Sea gas platforms, he'd sat down to a delicious spaghetti dinner with Rejani when the phone rang and a caller said, "Victor X-Ray just went down."
– Pages 173-4
The helicopter crash was unfortunate; but the care with which its blades were refurbished has nothing to do with the overall safety record of Shell Oil or that of any other oil company. Those records speak for themselves. I won't belabor the point; I've done that elsewhere at length. I'll simply point out that, in the Arctic, Shell has performed poorly over the past two summers. It is not ready to begin drilling. Nor, for that matter, is America. If there is a case to be made that America needs that oil ASAP — a highly debatable proposition in my view — then America needs to do a lot more preparation.