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Alaska's Arctic: Who will lead at the top of the world?

Jill Burke
Stephen Nowers illustration

After six years of steering the North Slope Borough through changing times, Mayor Edward Itta has hit his term limits and will step aside to let someone else take charge. Located in the village of Barrow, high above the Arctic Circle and one of America’s northernmost points, the mayor’s office Itta holds may be remote but it is far from inconsequential.

It is here, along hundred miles of coastline hugging the Arctic Ocean that people’s livelihoods are directly affected by the oil and gas industry. It is here that new exploration of the outer continental shelf is planned for 2012. And it is here that the region’s indigenous people who thrived before Big Oil by living off of the land and sea intend to make sure the marine life that continues to nourish them withstands the impact of industry. For the oil industry, the North Slope is a fickle partner. Sometimes welcoming, sometimes defiant and almost always somewhat skeptical, its posture can both ease tensions or throw up obstacles, as has occurred under Itta’s guidance.

Five people are vying for the seat Itta will leave: a former five-time mayor, a whaling captain’s wife, two assemblymen and a gas field worker. All will have to walk the delicate line between defending the environment and fostering the industry that feeds the government’s coffers. Nearly 98 percent of the $277 million the borough collects annually in property taxes comes from the oil industry, and most of the 20,000 jobs in the region stem from oil and gas-related activities.

At a time when oil production at Prudhoe Bay, the nation’s largest oil field, located in the North Slope Borough, is on the decline, how to get more oil flowing and what new sources to tap has lead policy discussions at local, state and national levels. For this reason, Mayor Itta recently came to be known as the mayor at the top of the world and one of the most powerful mayor’s in the nation, as described by Parade Magazine.

Before he became Alaska’s Lt. Governor, Mead Treadwell, who at the time was serving as chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, told the magazine “the terms by which future oil will flow to the U.S. will be set in large part by North Slope residents. That’s how important Itta is.”

The point is underscored by Monday’s approval, a little more than two weeks before voters will choose Itta’s replacement, of air permits for exploratory drilling by Royal Dutch Shell in the Chukchi Sea during the summer of 2012. Shell’s offshore plans in Alaska have suffered setbacks in the past, including opposition from the borough itself. In 2007 it sued to stop Shell, a move that forced Shell, according to Itta, to seriously listen to and address the concern of locals, including those worried that industrial activity in the ocean would harm or deter wildlife and that clean up capabilities in the event of a spill were insufficient.  By the time environmentalists and other North Slope villagers were ready to continue the legal battle against Shell in 2010, Itta was no longer willing to use the courts to wield influence over Shell. Itta had achieved his goal. The company had learned, and listened. It had agreed to cease operations during whale migrations and hunts.  

And earlier this year, Itta spoke to the dilemma of opposing offshore drilling while at the same time knowing where the money that drives his community comes from and the struggles that could ensue if, as production declines, the borough’s income dwindles. “If there's no more oil, what are we going to do? That's a very real question my people are struggling with now,” he told the Arctic Sounder.

It’s also a question that the candidates who wish to succeed Itta are grappling with.

“It is crucial that we work closely with oil and gas companies, including independents, to explore and develop new oil and gas resources for continued future income. We must protect the OCS areas in the Beaufort and Chukchi [Seas] at all cost, especially our subsistence resources and especially our subsistence whaling,” George Ahmaogak, Sr., told the Arctic Sounder in the paper’s Sept. 15 edition.

Ahmaogak, a whaling captain, has served as mayor five terms in the past, and became a controversial figure after his last term when, in 2006, the man who once staunchly opposed the oil and gas industry’s impingement on villagers’ ways of life, he took a job with Shell as the company’s Alaska’s Operations Manager. The position, which paid into six figures, pulled him away from Barrow and to Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city. He also has a keen awareness of what’s at stake if the oil industry falters. As a younger man  Ahmaogak worked in the borough’s assessor’s office, issuing the first tax bill sent to an oil company, then opening the return envelope which contained a $3 million check.

Among those Ahmaogak will have to defeat to reclaim the mayor’s seat is Charlotte Brower, who ended up in a run-off with Itta in 2005. Itta was the leader by more than ten points, but he failed to reach a necessary 40% of the vote, spurring the run off. Brower, who works as a director of human resources and is married to whaling captain Eugene Brower, is running on a “putting people first” platform which emphasizes access to education and jobs, and cautious continuance of working with the oil industry. “We oppose offshore, but since we don’t control it, we need to make sure we are on the table and our voice is heard,” she told the Arctic Sounder. “To do that, we need strong leadership and staff, to not back down from anyone or any energy company, and to stick with our Whaling Captains and make sure AEWC [Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission] is well supported.”  

Enough well-known figures are in this year’s race that 2011 may be another run-off year. Two assemblymen – Fenton Rexford and Forrest “Deano” Olemaun – also want the mayor’s job. Rexford, a whaling captain, is the tribal administrator and a former mayor for the village of Kaktovik, and Olemaun is former president of Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation. They, too, are pitching an optimistic but guarded approach to the role new oil and gas exploration should play in the years ahead.

“Together, with a multitude of regulatory agencies we have developed numerous tools to oversee all development in our region. We have not always agreed with our regulatory partners. Yet, we continue to work through our differences using a variety of tools, everything from negotiated settlements to litigation. We have learned that it is necessary to deploy all tools in a balanced approach that achieves the greatest protections while enjoying the greatest cultural freedoms,” Rexford told the Arctic Sounder.

If elected mayor, Olemaun has said he will create a focus group to study how best to handle offshore development. He declined to offer a personal opinion about offshore drilling, and instead told the Arctic Sounder “I will not impose my beliefs on the people of the North Slope but the contrary I will push the agenda of the people.” He also cautioned that exploration and development must be done responsibly and protect the environment, and that the borough’s reliance on oil companies, including the jobs and educational opportunities it brings, is worth keeping in mind.

The fifth man vying for the top spot at the borough is an assistant gas field manager at Rockford Corporation. Ned Arey, Sr., who is running a “Next Generation Leadership!” campaign and who has pledged to improve departments borough-wide, didn’t share with the Arctic Sounder his specific views about offshore drilling, but did say as mayor he would push a “Deep Water Port” and “alternative solutions from Oil and Gas” for economic development.

The North Slope Borough occupies about 94,000 square miles in Northern Alaska and is larger than most states in the Lower 48. And while it doesn’t look out for what nationally would be considered a huge swath of residents -- consider, for example, that Los Angeles County is home to 9.8 million people --  it’s remote post with some 6,770 permanent residents and another 9,800 who drift in for half of the year is one the wields great influence.

“They have the honey pot,” explained Don Mitchell, a historian and lawyer in Anchorage. “What the North Slope Borough has to say about oil development and related activities is of extreme importance to all of Alaska. At the top of the decision making pyramid is the mayor.”

Decades ago when the borough formed it was to get access to its share of the oil industry’s money, but soon realized it could also play a regulatory role, one it quickly assumed, Mitchell said.

Indeed, as Shell looks forward to a hoped-for drilling season in the Chukchi Sea this summer, the temperament of the borough’s next mayor could be of critical importance. While the air quality permits are, after five years of work, finally in place, several other criteria have yet to be met. The Interior Department must approve its exploration plan, it needs to get clearance from federal wildlife agencies, and it still needs to apply for its final permit known as an APD or “application for permit to drill.”

With Alaska relying on the oil industry to fund more than 80 percent of its revenue, the state is as dependant on the industry as the borough, and fostering development has obvious financial upsides.

“The North Slope Borough is an incredibly important part of the political and economic fabric of the state because the oil industry is what drives the economy of the Alaska and as we all know most of the oil industry is Prudhoe Bay and the surrounding fields, all of which are located inside the North Slope Borough,” Mitchell said.

Who will be the next mayor at the top of the world? Voters get to decide Oct. 4.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.