Reviewed 12/30/2012

The Eskimo and the Oil Man, by Bob Reiss

Access to this book courtesy of the
Mountain View, CA Public Library
The Battle at the Top of the World for America's Future
Bob Reiss
New York: Business Plus, May 2012




ISBN-13 978-1-4555-2524-9
ISBN-10 1-4555-2524-3 305pp. HC/BWI $27.99

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.

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.

  1. Fifty Years Below Zero by Charles D. Brower (Dodd, Mead, 1985)
  2. The Firecracker Boys by Dan O'Neill (St. Martin's Griffin, 1994) My review
  3. The Whale and the Supercomputer by Charles Wohlfort (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)
  4. Fifty Miles from Tomorrow by William Hensley (Sarah Crichton Books, 2008)
  5. Resolute by Martin Sandler (Sterling, 2006)
  6. Watching Ice and Weather Our Way by Conrad Oozeva, Chester Noongwook, George Nooongwook, Christina Alowa and Igor Krupnik

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.

1 Itta would much rather have seen wells within ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
2 One thing I found very interesting is that, although the book makes frequent reference to events in Alaska from 2007 through summer 2011, there is no mention of its former governor. I checked the index to be sure: Palin, Sarah does not appear.
3 Bud's Offshore Energy is now a private blog — which suggests it is worth reading, but has had its fill of asinine comments. I've found that any worthwhile blog on energy or climate will fill up with asinine comments if no screening is done. Making the blog private removes the need for constant moderation.
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