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Shocker: Urban know-it-all exploiting Arctic people to fight Big Oil

Craig Medred

Frances Beinecke lives in New York, attended Yale College and clearly knows everything. This is why everyone should listen to her when she says Kaktovik, a community on the Beaufort Sea on the far northern edge of Alaska, would be better off without oil.

"When you live in a place where milk comes in a can and groceries are flown by plane, you rely heavily on the natural world to feed your family. For residents of Kaktovik, Alaska, that means turning to the Beaufort Sea for the whales that have sustained the village for generations. But now, an industrial threat is closing in on this mainstay of Inupiat tradition," she wrote the other day in one of those stories that strangely enough pops up once again on Google News.

Google these days seem to be having one hell of a time separating "news" from "propaganda." I say this not because of Beinecke's opinions, but because of where the piece originated, "The Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog." The NRDC is an advocacy group like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or Arctic Power, which might be considered the anti-NRDC when it comes to Kaktovik.

None of those groups do "news." They might do a fair bit of commentary, as Beinecke did, but they don't do news. And when they do commentary, they don't even bother to label it as such, assuming (I guess), rightly or wrongly, that whoever reads them knows they are advocates and thus any such label is unnecessary. Such is the world as we know it these days.

That is what it is. But what is contemptible here is the oh-so-smart Beinecke, the president of the NRDC, who has in all likelihood never been been to the Arctic, using the people of Kaktovik as pawns in her personal battle with Big Oil.

"As people living in the Beaufort Sea are realizing, the endless pursuit of oil takes a heavy toll on ordinary Americans. From the Inupiat villagers who worry offshore drilling will ruin their hunting to the North Dakota farmers who live with fracking wastewater pits the size of football fields next to their homes to the Michigan residents who see tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River two years after a pipeline ruptured, people across the country are paying a high price for America’s failed energy policy," she writes.

In the first place, there are no people "living in the Beaufort Sea." There are fish living "in the" sea and some marine mammals, but no people. People live along the shores of the Beaufort. Take it from someone who has been there, even if his education did come from the lowly University of Alaska Fairbanks via the University of Minnesota. Beinecke is, however, right when she says people along the Arctic coast from Kotzebue on the Bering Sea north to Barrow and along the Arctic Ocean east all the way to the outpost of Kaktovik near the Canadian border worry about what oil development will do to hunting.

Convenient survival

More, though, they worry about how they are going to survive in the world of today and how their children are going to survive in the world of tomorrow, because here's the thing about "relying heavily on the natural world," as Beinecke puts it: That policy leaves you subject to the vagaries of the natural world.

Just ask the folks who live along the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers in Western Alaska, who are struggling and suffering now because the king salmon did not return from the sea in the numbers needed to support the people who live there. Living of the land in Alaska is no doubt a wonderful idea to someone living in the urban noise and grit of New York. On the ground in Alaska, there are some problems.

One of them is that living off the land is a lot of damn work that many in the younger generation don't want to do. They'd rather chat or text on their cell phones which are now everywhere in rural Alaska. The kids are moving at lightspeed toward a new world. The only parents who don't worry about this are the parents who aren't paying attention.

"How you gonna keep them down on the farm when they've seen the city?" is a question that echoed through the American Midwest a generation OK, and across the continent a generation before that. In the year 1900, 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. Today, 80 percent of them live in urban areas. They are like Beinecke, they relish the conveniences of the city while dreaming of some rural utopia.

That dream doesn't get any bigger than when applied to the wilds of Alaska and those people out there living as one with nature.

It's a pretty good deal, too, if you've got money. Even here in Anchorage, our freezer is pretty well stocked with wild fish and game. We like being able to take advantage of what the lands offers in Alaska. Anchorage, in some ways, might be one of the better places in the state to do "subsistence" as Alaskans like to call it. There is dirt cheap road access to at least two excellent salmon fisheries, and with a reasonable investment -- something way short of buying an airplane -- a hunter can gain access to moose and caribou.

Granted, the caribou hunting is better around some rural villages, if the caribou show up, a sometimes big if. And the same cannot often be said for the moose hunting. Alaska doesn't support a lot of moose. There are what one might call "dead zones" empty of moose around some villages now. People need to go farther and farther from home to find a moose. That, of course, costs money.

Even those redneck-owned pickup trucks the NRDC likes to chastise as "gas guzzlers" are fuel sippers compared to outboard-powered riverboats and four-wheelers. And in rural Alaska these days, you sort of need these tools to live that natural life style. A chainsaw is handy, too; and a generator to fire up the computer to connect to the internet unless you're living in a village with power, but then the village needs a bunch of fuel to run the power plant.

Oil or no oil, the Bush needs jobs

Rural Alaska, like the rest of America, is a hydrocarbon economy. Someday we are going to have to break the bond to oil. The oil isn't going to last forever. But we are, sadly, a long way from that day. And even when we get to the shiny new future, it doesn't solve the biggest problem of rural Alaska: jobs.

Damn few of the younger generation are going to stay in Kaktovik or villages like it just to live off the land. For one thing, the land can't support that many. For another, it's a hard life lacking in the amenities most Americans today take for granted. There is no McDonalds in Kaktovik, no Walmart, no movie theater. There are reasons Alaska has for decades now been witness to a steady migration of people from rural areas to regional hubs and the state's major cities. The people with the skills to get out of rural Alaska are to often moving to where they can market those skills. There is a brain drain.

What rural Alaska needs to stop this is jobs. The oil industry would provide jobs in Kaktovik. It has provided jobs in Barrow. People there say life is better. People in Kaktovik have seen that. The village has long supported oil development nearby, albeit on land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge rather than offshore. Villagers recognize there are tradeoffs, but life is nothing but a bunch of tradeoffs.

Damn few, if any of us, live the perfect life. We make compromises. Smart, highly educated and well-off people like Beinecke want the rest of us to make even more compromises.

"Are you going to let fossil fuel companies own your town because America can’t commit to cleaner alternatives?" she writes. "Are you going to let them trash the last wild ocean on Earth? If you believe our country can get on a cleaner, more sustainable path, then click here and tell your leaders to end reckless oil and gas drilling and support renewable energy resources."

Oh, if only it were this simple. I wonder how many days per week Beinecke rides her bike to work. She has wonderful green credentials. I don't have any, but my bike has become a regular form of transportation. I wish I could use it to commute to my favorite spots for hunting and fishing, but the distance is too far, so I, too, remain tied to oil. I don't like it.

I came to Alaska in 1973 fleeing roads, motor vehicles and traffic. Alaska was a different place then, a place in some ways better and many ways worse. Two of the biggest differences are that the population was less than half of what it is today, and technology was only then creeping into rural areas. The Grumman canoe with a small outboard was still the powerboat of choice on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. There was no television, let alone cell phones or Internet, in the Bush. The snowmachine was beginning to transform winter, but it wasn't yet something on which a man would think about traveling 90 miles from Kotzebue to the Delong Mountains for a weekend sheep hunt.

Everything is different now. There are high-speed jet boats on the Yukon and Kusko. Villages not only have satellite TV; they have the internet and cell service. The snowmachine has become almost car-like, for lack of a better description. And the first all-terrain three-wheelers, which appeared in the 1970s and boomed in the 1980s before being outlawed in 1987, have been replaced by four-wheelers that are everywhere in a rural Alaska where damn few people walk anymore.

Judging by the pocket-book voting -- none of this machinery is cheap -- rural Alaskans appear to be overwhelmingly of the belief that four-wheelers, snowmachines, powerboats, TV, computers and cell phones are good things. Most Alaskans, judging by their accumulations of toys, would seem to agree. Unfortunately, all of these things require power, much of it coming from hydrocarbons.

So we're kind of stuck here. We need power in the North, and we need jobs, and the best place to get both is with oil development. It would be nice if there were a clear alternative. It would be nice if what the Beineckes of the world said were true:

We have cleaner, more sustainable ways (than oil) to keep our economy moving. New fuel economy standards finalized by the Obama administration, for instance, will save drivers $80 billion a year by 2030 and cut America’s oil use by more than we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010.

What would those cleaner, more sustainable ways be? Coal? Nuclear power? Natural gas "fracked" from beneath the Lower 48 states?

And as for saving oil with fuel economy standards, there is no indication that's the way the tradeoffs work on that deal. All indications are the fuel standards just help drivers, particularly those tied to long commutes because of the way our cities and suburban areas have been designed, keep pace with the increasing cost of gas, i.e. they spend as much money and use as much oil in the new car as in the old car but they can drive a whole lot more.

Driving a whole lot more, of course, has other consequences: traffic congestion, accidents and road kill, which is a very real environmental problem in most of the country. The way to shift this paradigm, of course, would be to raise the tax on gasoline to discourage people from driving and roll the money from that tax into building infrastructure such as commuter railroad lines and bike paths to help move people around in ways other than automobiles. But that isn't going to happen because environmentalists and the auto industry appeared to have formed some sort of unholy alliance built around fuel-efficiency standards.

A conspiracy freak might almost be forced to wonder if maybe some environmentalists really want to keep us tied to oil, too, despite their public protestations, in order to keep their favorite capitalist whipping boys in business. Oh-so-smart Beinecke again:

Royal Dutch Shell takes in more money than any company on earth. Seven of the top 10 companies on the Fortune 500 list come from the oil and gas industry, and these companies exert enormous influence on our political system. The industry spent $175.6 million on lobbying in 2009, the year climate legislation was introduced in Congress. And fossil fuel companies have lavished $153 million on campaign ads in this election year, with the American Petroleum Institute alone spending $37 million.

What she doesn't tell you there is that Royal Dutch Shell takes in more money than any PRIVATELY-OWNED company on earth." There are a whole lot of other oil companies taking in far more money. They have names like Saudi Aramco, the national oil company for Saudi Arabia; the National Iranian Oil Company; Pemex, Mexico's national oil company; and the Iraq National Oil Company.

CNN's puts another of these government or quasi-government entities -- Gazprom, not Shell -- at the head of its list of most profitable global "companies" for 2012. Things get sticky here because of differing view on what constitutes a "company," and what is really a government entity. CNN doesn't rank Aramco, the world's biggest oil company by far and an entity worth trillions. But it does rank Gazprom, which it describes as a Russian company with "a tight-knit relationship with its country’s government."

Most of the big oil producers have such relationships. As Fortune magazine notes, the world's top-10 oil-producing companies are government owned or controlled. The U.S. doesn't have a national oil company to compete with them. So to get oil, we are dependent on companies like Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP.

The CNN list, it is worth noting, ranks ExxonMobil number two in profitability ahead of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China and Shell in position four. Shell's profits are reported to be about 60 percent those of Gazprom. All of the privately owned oil companies -- Shell, Chevron at number 5 on the CNN list; BP, number 8; Norwegian-owned Statoil, number 27; and ConocoPhillips, number 30 -- argue they need to make huge profits to be able to finance increasingly costly oil development as exploration and production pushes into new frontiers deep beneath the ocean and in the Arctic.

How much of this is hype and how much is fact is anyone's guess, but there is no doubt some truth to these claims. Certainly development in the Arctic is not cheap, and the costs only go up as efforts are employed to make it safer and clearer. Beinecke, sitting pretty in New York, would prefer the oil companies simply avoid the region. In a perfect world, so would I.

But I've been to Kaktovik and Wainwright and a whole lot of other Alaska villages lacking any sort of real, functional economy. It changes your view. The unemployed, by and large, live unhappy lives. It's that simple. I'm surely not as smart as Beinecke, (Hell, I might not be as smart as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and she would never have made it into Yale) but after a lifetime in the North I have learned this:

If you don't worry about oil development in the Arctic, you don't care about the environment. And if you don't worry about jobs in the Arctic, you don't care about people -- no matter how much you might try to pretend that you do. What I'd suggest might be in order here is some immersion therapy for our New York know-it-all.

Maybe Beinecke could go spend a year incognito in Kaktovik. If she's even half as smart as her resume makes her out to be, I'd love to know what she thinks afterward.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com

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