Power, Ego and Greed Threaten the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
by Soren Wuerth

On a flight to Valdez, Alaska, 12 years ago, a Boston Globe reporter sitting beside me asked if it was true that the oil industry and its political puppets were behind the ubiquitous, though dehumanizing, reference to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as "AN-WAR."

We were both flying to Prince William Sound to cover the impacts of the nation's worst oil spill—Exxon's 11-million gallon gusher.

"To be honest, I don't know," I told the reporter. At the time, I had only just begun to question "Big Oil." But after seeing so many sea otters struggling to breathe, pristine beaches turned filthy with a film of brownish-orange "mousse" and after listening to countless fishermen pissed-off as ever, I decided that Big Oil is certainly not my friend.

Ten years later, I walked across the Arctic ice pack dressed in a heavy parka toward a man-made island. I carried, along with another Alaskan—a commercial fisher and grandmother—a sign that mentioned something about global warming.

We had gotten no more than a hundred yards when security police and local government cops grabbed us, put on handcuffs and shoved us into a school bus. British Petroleum's Northstar site, the first permanent offshore oil drilling structure in the Arctic Ocean, didn't take kindly to strangers.

Within two months, more than a dozen Greenpeace protesters had been arrested crossing some imaginary line on the Arctic Ocean. A six-mile-long pipeline connecting the Northstar facility to land has a one-in-four chance of spilling oil, according to environmental studies. An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean would be impossible to clean up.

Driving back toward Prudhoe Bay in the bus, I watched as large backhoes, straddling the six-mile-long hole in the ice, clawed a sub-ocean trench where they would lay their line. A jail in Prudhoe was the closest I would ever get to the coastal plain of "AN-WAR."

The Arctic Refuge is a wilderness area the size of Maine that was established in 1980, in an eleventh-hour act signed by Jimmy Carter. What to do with its coastal plain, a broad expanse of tundra and wetland, was left to Congress. While the area has a promising supply of oil in Big Oil's greedy eyes (that is, about a six-month national supply at best), the coastal plain is also a wildlife sanctuary and the nursing ground for the migratory porcupine caribou herd.

When I complained to an oil industry analyst that so much attention and environmentalists' resources went to the refuge, while other places were being polluted, drilled and otherwise despoiled, he told me the coastal plain cannot be compared with another place on the planet. "It is unique in its incredible biodiversity of wildlife," he said. "You have polar bears, wolves, musk oxen and caribou all surviving in the same relatively small area."

In the late '80s, I wrote a long article for a journalism class at the University of Alaska-Anchorage that analyzed caribou density maps. Overlay caribou calving maps on top of maps showing where oil companies would drill and you have a perfect match. Aerial surveys showing where the caribou congregated were mysteriously burned in a fire.

I also learned that the porcupine caribou herd was unique among caribou in that it migrated in an immense sea of mammals in a U-shaped arc from northwestern Canada south below the refuge and up to the coastal plain, where, on the windy, mosquito-free coast, they dropped their calves.

A few years later, a fellow student and I visited Arctic Village, in the southern corner of the refuge, as a research project for another class. What we quickly learned by talking with the Gwich'in people is that the issue of whether to allow oil drilling in the Arctic is much more than an environmental issue; it is a human rights issue. The Gwich'in, or "the Caribou People," have been living around and north of the Yukon for 10,000 years. "Like the buffalo to the Sioux the caribou is to the Gwich'in," says Sarah James, an international Gwich'in spokesperson. Their connection with their land was obvious as we watched in amazement as a local fisherman caught whitefish from a hole in the ice at minus 40 degrees using his bare hands.

We were taken to a shed that stored frozen carcasses of caribou. About 90 percent of the protein in the Gwich'in diet comes from caribou. The community shares its food: The first caribou shot go to those most in need, we were told. "Our society was set up to discourage everything your society promotes, namely power, ego and greed," observed Lincoln Tritt, a Gwich'in musician, writer and philosopher.

Over the years I still come back to Lincoln's words, and I have the oil industry to thank for reminding me of the pervasiveness of power, ego and greed. Oil companies in Alaska make, on average, $10,000 per minute in net profit from North Slope production. How much is ever going to be enough?

Meanwhile, Big Oil spends millions of dollars annually on local in-your-face advertising. (BP's latest gimmick is a new, yuppie Volkswagen beetle, embossed with their flashy, light green logo, shaped like the sun. Their TV commercials show the car careening down deserted highways.)

While Big Oil has succeeded in buying many Alaskan politicians—especially our congressional delegation—they still haven't convinced many Alaskans that they are, in the words of our Democratic, oil-sponsored governor, "good partners." In the early '90s, conservative Governor Walter Hickel led a much-publicized fight to get the recalcitrant oil industry to pay taxes owed to the state. Then the oil industry financed a campaign to raid the Alaska "Permanent Fund" program, an investment account designed to return each Alaskan a share of the fund's interest. Last year, each Alaskan took home $1,983. Rather than increase taxes on the oil industry, state politicians wanted to tax this program to finance spending. Alaskans overwhelmingly voted "No" to the idea. Next BP tried to illegally takeover Arco to monopolize production on the North Slope. Many Alaskans were outraged by that prospect, and the Federal Trade Commission forced the company to divest. Exxon continues to delay payment of $5 billion it owes to communities and fishermen in Prince William Sound, and they arbitrarily laid off hundreds of workers during corporate downsizing. Furthermore, Big Oil was recently attacked for posting a racist sign along a busy Anchorage road relating "Anti-ANWR" supporters to Arab people.

Now, along comes an oil cartel that includes president Boy George, Cheney (the $36-million oilman), Norton, Big Oil and numerous underlings promoting development in "ANWAR." While our oil-backed congressional delegation says Alaska is pro-development, up here, not as many people are convinced as they would hope. Many Alaskans don't trust Big Oil for reasons mentioned above.

So, for many Alaskans, government employees fired for exposing facts like caribou calving areas, posturing in Congress, the politics of oil and the environment and the tromping of Native rights to land and subsistence are all old hat. Like other icons of environmental debate, we know the arguments to develop are embarrassed by the open page of history. But at least for now, people who see the Arctic refuge as something more than a dehumanizing acronym have the majority of votes in Congress, and it looks like human rights, compassion and reason are winning the battle over power, ego and greed.

For more information, contact the Alaska Action Center, POB 100911, Anchorage, AK 99510-0911; (907) 5632784; akaction@alaska.com.

Soren Wuerth is a substitute teacher as well as the program director of the Alaska Action Center, a community activism group.

© Earth First! Journal May-June 2001