For or against Inupiats tied to off-shore drillin
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Oil began flowing on Thursday from the first new off-shore drilling project in Alaska to occur in more than a decade, a prelude to expanded development in traditional Inupiat whale hunting grounds.

Known as the Northstar project, it is being undertaken by oil giant BP Exploration with royalties being paid both to Alaska and the federal government. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton said the joint effort will bring in 175 million barrels of oil, which she considered especially vital to national security in the wake of September 11's terrorist attacks.

But fears about drilling's impact on the bowhead whale population has raised concerns among Inupiat communities on Alaska's North Slope. While many Inupiats support on-shore oil and gas development including the controversial proposal to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration, they are less excited about the prospect of drilling affecting their traditional source of food and a central part of their culture.

With the Interior moving forward on a five-year plan to lease more off-shore areas to development, those fears are becoming more pronounced. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which oversees Inupiat whale hunts, earlier this year passed a resolution to support drilling in ANWR -- so long as the government kept away from the sea.

Along with Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Alaska Native regional corporation which also supports ANWR development, Inupiats have objected to a plan to build a natural gas pipeline through the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea, prime hunting grounds. The two seas are targeted for development by a draft management plan Norton released in July.

At the same time, Arctic Slope vice president Richard Glenn said Inupiats aren't entirely opposed to off-shore projects like Northstar. But they aren't going out and holding press conference either, he acknowledged, as they do to push for ANWR drilling.

"The Inupiat people as a whole categorically tried to draw a line supporting safe on-shore exploration development and opposing off-shore development," Glenn said.

Unable to stop test oil wells and projects like Northstar, Glenn said there is a move to become more involved in the process, which has helped allay some fears. In the Beaufort Sea where Northstar is located, for example, he said when Inupiats "were convinced development could be done safely, we supported it."

"But it doesn't mean we are out in front supporting off-shore oil and gas development," he said.

With the prospect of jobs from both on-shore and off-shore projects, Inupiats are tied to drilling whether they approve or not, Glenn said. "In other areas where -- even in spite of our opposition -- construction has taken place, we've tried to have a part in construction so that our people could go to work," he pointed out.

Inupiats will be faced with the question more often once the Interior moves forward with leasing in the Beaufort Sea, which is scheduled for 2003. Robin Lee Cacy, a Minerals and Management Services spokesperson for the Alaska region, said the Beaufort leases will be covered under the first environmental impact statement being prepared.

Because of Inupiat concerns, Lee Cacy added that the Interior has undertaken a number of studies to address the impact of drilling on the whale population. In particular, the government wants to "capture the traditional knowledge of the area," she said.

As the process continues, don't look to Inupiats to stop working with the goverment, said Glenn. "To categorically oppose something that's going to happen in your area is to walk away from the table," he said.

A second Beaufort Sea project has been proposed, called Liberty. A final environmental impact statement is due next year.

Relevant Links:
Northstar Project -
Arctic Slope Regional Corp -

Related Stories:
Inupiats: ANWR oil needed to survive (10/26)
Interior plan targets Arctic for off-shore drilling (7/24)
Alaska Natives don't want off-shore pipeline (7/20)