Drilling the Chukchi: The view from an Inupiat village

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A helicopter carrying Shell Oil-contracted scientists lands in the Chukchi Sea village of Wainwright. The mayor rushes out to remind the pilot not to frighten a nearby caribou herd. It's a simple start to what's sure to become a vastly more complex and contentious relationship as the multinational forces of oil exploration meet the ancient tundra-and-sea livelihood of Alaska's Inupiaq villagers.

The Washington Post today samples the view of Shell's proposed Chukchi offshore drilling from tiny Wainwright, the nearest community to the company's Burger lease area. The village of 540 on the coast southwest of Barrow is already the storage site for some of Shell's oil spill containment booms, but it's hardly prepared for the influx of people and equipment it would see if a spill response did occur. Still, there's much support for Shell's efforts in the village.

"You have to think of your country, like that president said," says the village mayor, Enoch Oktollik, struggling to recall the name of John F. Kennedy. Oktollik, who maintains boilers and does other handy work, says that more than half the people in Wainwright are unemployed. They might be able to find work supporting the oil companies.

Though people here talk about protecting their subsistence way of life, they still rely on planes and ships for some supplies. Those shipments are expensive. A new port would reduce those expenses, the mayor adds. ...

The Olgoonik Corp., the village company that runs the hotel and store, has printed a slick brochure with a vision for a port and encampments for oil workers.

"They smell money," says resident Frank Bester Jr.

The Post team also follows Shell-contracted scientists as they scout the Chukchi coast -- wary of encountering polar bears -- looking for archaeological sites and studying currents and tides, looking for a place to bring a pipeline ashore. Shell says it recognizes that it's drilling in new territory, where extreme cold, pack ice and a short drilling season could delay spill response. But not all the Inupiat people of the region are confident the company is concerned about their long-term well-being.

Time after time, people mention the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I'm afraid being so rural here, they may not have the proper equipment to take care of it," says Ralph Aveoganna, who works at a local gasoline station. He also fears oil development might change the migration patterns of the bowhead whale.

Yet change is probably coming to Wainwright in any case. Climate change is altering the ice melt and could change migration patterns. It could also turn the Arctic into a shipping channel; last year the first commercial cargo trip was made, carrying iron ore from Norway to China.

Read more at The Washington Post. The article includes an extensive photo gallery and map of proposed drilling sites.