"Edward Itta, 65, may be one of America’s most powerful mayors—but you’ve probably never heard of him. He governs the Wyoming-sized North Slope Borough of Alaska, a territory larger than 39 of our 50 states. However, his influence doesn’t come from the size of that area but from what lies beneath the land and its adjacent waters. The North Slope contains the country’s largest oil field, Prudhoe Bay, which is now producing less than one-third of its former peak flow. The next great energy find—up to 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to U.S. government sources—is thought to be under the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, directly offshore from the North Slope.
Located above the Arctic Circle, the North Slope is home to some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes on earth, including the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and just 7500 people. The majority of them are Inupiat Eskimos, including Itta. Temperatures can rise to 60 degrees in summer and plummet to 50 below during the winter.
At first glance, Barrow, the seat of the regional government and America’s northernmost city, seems far from a nexus of power. Small homes perch on pilings to keep them from melting the permafrost. Their front yards—strewn with snowmobiles, drying racks for salmon or caribou skins, and sealskin whaling boats—are living museums of a people who value the outdoors. Not only is hunting an essential part of the culture, it’s a necessary alternative to high food prices. In the AC Value Center, a loaf of white bread is $5.39 and a quart of milk $3.95. In the last local census, 61% of residents who work full time and 89% of the unemployed reported getting more than half of their food from hunting and fishing.
There are also many signs of development, which Itta supports. Satellite dishes dot rooftops. Much of the infrastructure has been paid for by the $250 million in taxes that the North Slope gets annually from energy companies. The high school, borough offices, and community-center buildings were funded by oil money, as were the North Slope’s Learjet 31 and the search-and-rescue unit’s Bell 412 helicopters.
Like his counterparts who live on the Gulf of Mexico, Itta struggles to balance his constituents’ environmental and energy concerns. “Offshore drilling means the risks are great to the marine mammals we depend on for subsistence,” he says while watching a news clip of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig burn on TV in May. “We fear it may pollute the water, cause spills, frighten off whales with noise.” Itta believes offshore drilling is inevitable, adding, “I’m not trying to stop the oil. But if whales disappear, so will our culture.”"
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The Mayor at the Top of the World
(Parade Magazine 7/18)