Native Voices on Oil and Gas Development

February 1, 2016 in Blog, Local Perspective

Earlier this month, Arctic Energy Center profiled oil and gas projects spearheaded by Alaska Native corporations, which demonstrate, loudly, Native enthusiasm for oil and gas development. Most of the time, actions speak louder than words, but lest there be any ambiguity, we highlight here what Alaska Natives have said about development – what they consider an “integral part of life here at the top of Alaska.”

1. Alaska Natives partner with industry on development

Because Alaska’s North Slope has seen “significant onshore extraction” for decades now after production “ramped up quickly in the late 1970s,” Natives can attest to the oil and gas industry’s record of safe and responsible development. As Jacob Adams, Sr., chief administrative officer for the North Slope Borough, has said,

“We firmly believe that the oil and gas and our animals can live in harmony by ensuring that the oil and gas development is done in a manner that won’t affect the well-being of our subsistence resources.”

Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, agreed, “For us in Alaska we have been co-existing with developing our resources and protecting our land forever – that’s what we know how to do.”

As part of keeping development safe and responsible, the oil and gas industry partners with Alaska Natives, relies on the traditional knowledge they have built up over the course of thousands of years, and collaborates with them when developing drilling plans to ensure that their subsistence lifestyle would not be interrupted or affected.  A National Journal article explained that “as a result of conversations with industry, [North Slope leaders] are convinced that development can be done safely, and that response and mitigation plans would be in place in case of any accidents.” For Shell’s project, specifically, the company “worked with Natives to understand the migration patterns and behavior of bowhead whales and other wildlife and altered their operations to protect the animals.”

That’s why the Arctic Iñupiat Offshore (AIO), a company formed by Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) and six North Slope village corporations, published an ad that ran in the New York Times, Houston Chronicle, Politico, and Seattle Times, thanking Shell for “investing in our region despite substantial federal roadblocks” and for “creating a historic partnership that gave the Slope’s regional corporation and six village corporations a seat at the table when critical development decisions were being made”:

“In 2014 we established Arctic Iñupiat Offshore (AIO) to advocate for responsible development of Arctic Slope resources that would create lasting benefits for our people.

We worked with Shell in creating a historic partnership that gave the Slope’s regional corporation and six village corporations a seat at the table when critical development decisions were being made. We participated in the decision process, balancing the subsistence with the economic needs of our people. We went in with our eyes wide open to the potential risks and benefits of responsible offshore development.

On behalf of AIO and the communities we represent, thank you Shell for working with Alaska Natives to pursue sustainable economies in the Arctic. Thank you for investing in our region despite substantial federal roadblocks. And thank you for setting the standard on how to partner with communities to ensure that development is done in a way that honors their values and traditional ways of life. We are proud to still be your partner.”

AIO ad - Thank You Shell (2)

Because of the industry’s track record and the successful partnership between companies and Natives, Natives hope to dispel the myth of the dichotomous “either-or” between development and environmental conversation, as ASRC’s Tara Sweeney has said,

“When it comes to resource development in the Arctic, many people feel like we have to choose between resource development and environmental stewardship. … The reality is it’s not an either-or situation. It’s finding that balance and working to ensure that development takes place responsibly, and to continue to protect the environment as the good stewards that our people are, because the environment also defines why we are, who we are as Inupiat people.”

Indeed, when President Obama visited Alaska last fall, Alaska Natives “hoped the president understood their desire to protect natural resources while also benefitting from responsible energy development.”

2. Alaska Natives see outside activists as an “attack on the heart of our culture”

In light of the positive partnership they have developed and maintained with industry, Natives are frustrated that the narrative of Arctic development crafted and spun out of places like New York City and Washington, D.C. bear little resemblance to their own experiences, and that “energy development is [increasingly] being threatened by outside forces that don’t understand what it’s like to live in this wind-swept piece of the world that’s covered by snow and ice most of the year.” They do not mince words, making it clear that efforts by activists to keep the Arctic a pristine snow globe are the “real” threat to their subsistence lifestyle and “an attack on the heart of our culture”:

“Outside environmental organizations look North and see opportunity. They view Alaska, particularly the Arctic, as a fundraising vehicle with endless possibilities. They see our region and envision their favorite renewable resource – money, and lots of it.

As Iñupiat, the environmentalists and their thinly disguised fundraising efforts are viewed as an attack on the heart of our culture, coming from people who know little about life in the Arctic.

The threat to our subsistence lifestyle is real, and it’s not being threatened by development or climate change. Instead, our way of life is being threatened by outside groups who want to make a dollar by suppressing our right to subsist.”

AIO ad- Preserving Our Culture

Fundamentally, Natives are tired of their home being romanticized, symbolized, and characterized as a region desperately needing to be preserved as postcard perfect. To them, these notions are heavy on arrogance and light on respect for a proud people who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years and have meaningful traditions and lifestyles to protect. When explaining the need to change the way political, industry, and environmental leaders talk about the Arctic, Greenland’s Minister of Finance, Mineral Resources and Foreign Affairs Vittus Qujaukitsoq said,

“The Arctic is so much more than icebergs, ice sheets and animals used as a symbol for western conservation movements. … The Arctic is inhabited by people who have lived there for thousands of years.”

It is precisely because the reality of life in the Arctic diverges so sharply from the perceptions cultivated and perpetuated outside of the region that Natives view outsider assessments and recommendations with contempt. Instead of being helpful, these suggestions betray an embarrassing ignorance concerning the conditions, circumstances, and needs of Arctic life.

For example, as the Natives explain, the North Slope Borough has “one of the largest local economies in Alaska due to the tax base provided by the oil and gas sector,” with oil and gas providing in 2013 $348 million in revenue that supported 1,900 local government jobs, 99 percent of total borough property tax revenue, and 11,100 jobs, or 72% of all jobs in the borough.

Yet, in face of this reality, outsiders, such as a New York-based professor, have patronizingly argued that “Alaska’s economy must diversity” and “develop [its] niche in the global economy” – while also admitting, “I would not pretend to know the state well enough to suggest what that might be.”

To such comments, Alaska Natives say,

“So when outside environmentalists say Arctic offshore development should be off limits, we ask them – what would replace our region’s economy? So far they have no answers.”

AIO ad - Responsible Development

For these reasons, Natives believe that decisions about Alaska should never be made by “outsiders who have never set foot in our state,” who may be experts at theatrics, stunts, and gimmicks but certainly not what is best for Alaska:

“Decisions about Alaska should remain in the hands of Alaskans, not outsiders who have never set foot in our state. And activities in our region should always be undertaken in collaboration with the people who call it home. At Arctic Iñupiat Off shore we’re committed to making sure that’s always the case – because no one cares for our land and waters like we do.”

AIO ad - Our Land


3. Alaska Natives view development as essential to modern life

“Elders with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) often talk about whaling and oil and gas development in similar terms, as elements crucial to their identity, well-being and survival. … While many Alaska Natives on the North Slope see the ability and right to hunt whales as necessary to surviving the winter and keeping their culture alive, they also see oil and gas development as essential to maintaining a basic standard of living including flush toilets, schools and transportation.” – National Journal

Alaska Natives are quick to acknowledge that oil and gas development has historically provided them with an indispensable pathway to modern life, making it possible for them to enjoy modern amenities that many in the Lower 48 regularly take for granted.

In a series of ads, Alaska Natives explain just how oil and gas development has “lifted us from Third World conditions”:

“A generation ago our Iñupiat Elders burned whale oil for heat, melted ice for water and a dog team was the only form of transportation. For many of us it’s hard to remember life without electricity and running water, four-wheelers or snow machines.

The truth is, life would be much different today if it weren’t for the discovery of oil on the North Slope, or the wisdom of our Elders to recognize its importance to our future.”

AIO Print Ad - Inuuniagniqput Inupiaguvluta

Another ad illustrates how the oil and gas industry is, and has been, “the foundation of our region’s economic strength” that “fuels our economy”:

“In the seventies, the newly-incorporated North Slope Borough used millions of dollars from oil tax revenue to bring water, electric and health services to the region for the very first time – the same basic services enjoyed by other Americans for decades. Today, the industry generates more than 11,000 jobs in our borough; provides nearly $350 million in local taxes; funds schools and public safety; and supports communication, transportation and construction infrastructure in the region that would otherwise not exist.”

AIO Print Ad - Economic Strength (2)

The personal experiences of Rex Rock Sr., ASRC President and CEO, offers a compelling story about just how oil and gas has changed life in the Arctic, as National Journal describes:

“He said it wasn’t un­til after oil be­came a re­source for Alaska Nat­ives that they were able to ad­opt mod­ern life­styles in­clud­ing ‘get­ting rid of the honey buck­et’ once used in­stead of toi­lets. He de­scribed how be­fore oil de­vel­op­ment star­ted, he as­sumed he would have to leave the com­munity to go to school, which made him anxious about leav­ing his aging grand­par­ents. But once on­shore oil de­vel­op­ment star­ted, the rev­en­ue helped build a high school in his North Slope com­munity and he was able to re­main at home. ‘It’s things like that – in­dustry has made a huge dif­fer­ence,’ Rock said.”

In Short

As much as activist groups based in the Lower 48 enjoy speaking for Alaska Natives, it’s time for them to step off their soapbox and hand the mic over to those who actually know what they are talking about. What Alaska Natives have to say is simple: They support oil and gas development. It is only fitting that we end here with their words:

“Responsible development equals economic resources for our region – sustainable employment, business opportunities, and a strong local tax base to build roads, schools, power plants and other important infrastructure we rely on every day.”