Native leaders urge developers to consult in villages

PARTNERING: Bring discussion of projects to the people affected, they say.

September 16, 2009 

It's a hot topic, especially in the cold Arctic.

How do oil and gas developers do business and have positive relationships with Alaska Natives who own a large chunk of the land and natural resources in the state, but need that land to remain unpolluted and wildlife-rich to preserve their way of life?

A trio of Alaska Native leaders addressed that question and others like it on Wednesday at the Alaska Oil & Gas Congress, a four-day meeting in downtown Anchorage of business executives, regulators and others involved in oil and gas.

The speakers, Jerry Isaac of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Margie Brown of Cook Inlet Region Inc. and Marie Greene of NANA Regional Corp., talked a little bit about oil and gas. But most of what they said was relevant to non-Native businesses of any kind.

Since Congress created Alaska Native corporations, seeded them with money and gave them land, the corporations have formed hundreds of partnerships with non-Native firms in many lines of business, from tourism to mining to government contracting.

Greene, NANA's chief executive, said companies have to be aware of the intense level of consultation in villages that needs to happen before major projects are undertaken on NANA land. The huge Red Dog zinc and lead mine, for example, didn't happen until after 10 years of consultation with Northwest Arctic villages, she said.

Recently, Kotzebue-based NANA signed an agreement with Trio Petroleum, a California oil company, to assess data related to potential oil and gas deposits on NANA land. Again, that meant visiting villages throughout the region to discuss the project, Greene said.

As far as offshore oil and gas exploration is concerned, "We can't emphasize it enough. We have a unique environment that supports our subsistence lifestyle. The ice is an extension of our land. ... There has to be a proven capability for cleanup (of oil spills)," she said.

Brown, CEO of CIRI, said the Anchorage-based CIRI found early on that the best way to learn how to be successful was through partnering with other firms.

Sometimes, Brown said, non-Native companies worry that the Native firms won't be good business partners because potential political strife in their boardrooms could make them unpredictable. Industry negotiators raised that concern when CIRI was negotiating a deal with Atlantic Richfield Co. to explore on CIRI land on the Kenai Peninsula years ago.

Ultimately, CIRI inked several deals with Arco, and during that period CIRI had no changes in top management while Arco had "at least four," she said.

"Arco does not even exist any longer and CIRI is stronger than ever," she said. (Arco evolved through mergers into Conoco Phillips.)

Isaac, Tanana Chiefs president, said non-Native firms need to respect Native land ownership and avoid hosting business meetings or consultations during subsistence harvests or funerals. He said that it's not sufficient for companies wanting to do business on Native land to offer jobs and small contracting opportunities. He said the companies need to provide substantial contracts and pay fair market value rents for using the land.

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