In the Arctic Ocean, an Alaska Native corporation seeks to fill void left by Shell

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Drilling on Alaska’s North Slope in Deadhorse. Photo: Mia Bennett

When Shell aborted its $7 billion Arctic drilling efforts in the Beaufort Sea in September 2015, environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief. The multinational corporation’s 28-vessel fleet, including its drillship and drill rig, quietly sailed south from Alaska towards warmer waters, avoiding any such catastrophes like the Kulluk’s grounding in 2013. Those opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean felt even more encouraged when the U.S. and Canada jointly banned new leases for Arctic oil and gas drilling in December of last year. Expanded Arctic fossil fuel exploration, it was hoped in some circles, would be postponed indefinitely, at least in North America.

Yet little attention has been paid to what happened to Shell’s leases after the oil company quit Alaska. Just days before the moratorium was announced, 21 leases in a part of the Beaufort Sea Lease Area called Camden Bay were purchased in 2016 by a subsidiary of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), the wealthiest Native corporation in Alaska. At about precisely the same time that ASRC was criticizing Obama’s ban on further developments in the Outer Continental Shelf, the protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline were exploding. If you thought that all indigenous peoples were uniformly opposed to oil drilling, think again.

According to a list provided by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, most of the leases purchased by ASRC Exploration are set to expire at the end of this year. Two are valid until summer 2019. In order to prevent the expiration of nearly all of the leases, as Alex DeMarban at Alaska Dispatch News writes, ASRC Exploration requested unitization of the offshore leases from the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Unsurprisingly, under an administration that’s more pro-oil than the previous one, BSEE approved the unitization of 20 of the 21 units.

The benefits of unitization are that whatever happens in one lease now applies to all other 20 leases, since they’re now considered part of the same area. Petroleum News explains, “Unitization binds together a group of leases, which often have multiple owners, to encourage orderly and thorough exploration and production with minimal waste of dollars or resources.” For ASRC, this means if they find oil in one lease area, the rest of their leases stay active and exploration can continue.

The next challenge for ASRC will be to successfully obtain an extension of the leases from BSEE. Shell wasn’t able to do this earlier, but that was under the Obama administration. Under Trump, things could be different.

Ty Hardt, Senior Director of Communications at ASRC, wrote over email,

“As we mentioned when we first announced the acquisition of the leases in Camden Bay, while regulatory and permitting uncertainty eventually drove Shell out of Alaska, we know there is still tremendous potential in Alaska’s offshore. We also know responsible resource development translates into economic stability for our region, and every community across the North Slope of Alaska will benefit from responsible development.”=

Since its formation in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ASRC has transformed into a major economic force in Alaska and beyond. In 2010, Forbes ranked it the 190th largest private company in the U.S., just behind Burger King, with revenues of $2.33 billion. The corporation represents the interests of some 13,000 Iñupiat shareholders, most of whom reside in seven villages scattered across Alaska’s North Slope. Every quarter, Iñupiat receive dividends from ASRC, whose value often reflects whether oil has been up or down.

ASRC’s active involvement in Arctic industrial development puts a spin on the usual narrative that’s woven of Arctic indigenous peoples being both victims of outside exploitation and staunch protectors of the environment. The regional corporation’s bread and butter has been oil field services for a long time, but it’s also been involved in mineral exploration for decades. In 1991, for instance, the Alaska legislature awarded $2 million to the company for coal exploration and feasibility studies in northern Alaska. Even back then, potential export markets were Asia and Europe via a “northern Arctic Ocean sea route,” as a 1992 report from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources referred to it. Since the late 2000s, ASRC’s interest in oil exploration has grown.

Apart from natural resource developmente, ASRC, like all Alaska Native corporations, is also able to expand rapidly in government services largely due to the 8(a) Business Development Program. This is intended to help businesses owned by people who have been historically disadvantaged to compete in the marketplace by allowing them to receive government contracts without having to compete with other bids. Unlike other companies classified under the 8(a) program, Alaska Native corporations have no upper limit on the size of government contracts they can receive. This exception has allowed some Native corporations, like ASRC, to grow so big that not only are they attempting to fill the shoes of Shell on the North Slope. They’re also doing things like hiring cyber security engineers in Saudi Arabia.

I asked Hardt, the ASRC communications director, what he would say to those who would argue that ASRC’s oil exploration might exacerbate Arctic climate change and jeopardize the well-being of future generations of Iñupiat shareholders. He responded,

“What jeopardizes future generations of Iñupiat on the North Slope is the threat of a failing economy and a diminishing number of opportunities for our people. We believe offshore exploration and development in the Alaskan Arctic can be done safely and successfully, which has proven to be the case in other regions, such as the Canadian and Russian Arctic.”

His words resonated with a conversation I had in March with Crawford Patkotak, Chairman of ASRC’s Board of Directors, at the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s (UIC) Arctic Business Development Tour in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska last March. Patkotak stressed the need for self-driven development rather than government handouts for Alaska Natives. He noted,

“We had to remind Congress that [the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act] wasn’t going to be a welfare bill. It was a rightful claim to not only continuously practice our traditional way of life, but having rights to resources that will improve and enhance the welfare of Iñupiat people. So over the years, seeing environmentalists, animal rights groups, that find ways to systematically strip our rights to develop our own resource – based on that whole theory of climate change…”

Anti-whaling and seal-clubbing protestors aside, one could argue that ASRC is simply a for-profit corporation that doesn’t really have the best interests of all its shareholders in mind. After all, Native corporations have had their fair share of scandals, from fraud and self-dealing within the Cape Fox Corporation to the dissolution of the 13th Regional Corporation after some pretty heinous corporate mismanagement. So maybe ASRC, in exploring for Arctic oil, is really just looking out for its wallet rather than its shareholders.

This is certainly a possibility, but Arctic oil is no easy game to play. Instead, ASRC could just stick to its tried and true practice of winning 8(a) contracts. But that doesn’t necessarily help to build an economic base for the future, which is what ASRC is trying to do in spurring Arctic oil extraction — even if the economics of it seem crazy at the moment. And beyond mere dollars and cents, the story here is also about protecting not only indigenous rights to traditional cultural practices, but protecting indigenous rights to develop. In some cases, the two are even intertwined. Economic development can generate the funds necessary to support traditional cultural practices that, for better or worse, might not be viable on their own anymore in an economy that has both subsistence and market practices. Making a sealskin boat for whaling, for instance, doesn’t come cheap. Sure, the sealskins and caribou intestine thread come from the land, but the wood has to be purchased, and later the motor and fuel, and so on and so forth.

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Women in Utqiaġvik working on the boat’s outer skin by stitching sealskin pieces together with caribou intestine thread. The men are working on the frame of the boat. Photo: Mia Bennett.

The words of an Elder I spoke to in Utqiaġvik reflected the determination of some Iñupiat to move forward with economic development. I asked Wesley Uġiaqtaq Aiken, a former whaling captain and World War II veteran, how he felt about oil and gas exploration. He mentioned the recent discovery of oil at Smith Bay on the North Slope and recalled how in days long past, Iñupiat used to haul seeping oil that had dried up on the bay’s surface to burn on shore. Looking to the future, Aiken remarked,

“I’m glad these young people are willing to go further out on the land – not the ocean. If they open so-called Alaska Native Wildlife Refuge – that one’s got natural gas out there. There must be something out there.”

He was hopeful, but also wary of outside intervention whether it was for or against oil drilling. Underscoring the importance of recognizing and upholding Native rights to the land and sea, the Elder reflected, “The Arctic Ocean is my beautiful garden – nobody messes around with it.”

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Looking out over the Arctic Ocean in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

Explosions in the Arctic: Mining gravel in Alaska

It’s the Fourth of July in the United States of America, which means fireworks and explosions galore. That means the time is ripe to discuss explosions in the Arctic, from dynamite detonations in Alaska to crater eruptions in Siberia. Today I’ll start, fittingly, in the American Arctic.

Dynamite explosions in Alaska

When people think of Arctic resources, they usually think of oil, gas, or minerals like gold and silver. But in general, those are more lucrative for export rather than for use by the Arctic’s four million residents. For people living in urban settings in the Arctic, gravel is a hugely valuable commodity. It’s used in almost every aspect of construction on permafrost, since a gravel pad needs to be laid down before a building can be put on top of the shifting terrain. Gravel is used for constructing roads, driveways, and runways, too. And the oil industry needs gravel in the Arctic in order to build artificial islands and drill pads.

Gravel, however, is scarce in much of the North American Arctic, and it’s availability can often be a deciding factor for many things. Trucking in gravel from the south is massively expensive, and when a town lacks any roads to the outside world, it’s all but impossible. Earlier this year, I heard a representative from Olgoonik Corporation, based in Wainwright, Alaska, state, “What’s the first stage to starting economic development in Wainwright or anywhere on the North Slope? It’s getting the gravel that you need. That creates the platform. How are you going to do that?”

Back in the 1950s, the Canadian government, when it was choosing a site for its administrative center in the Western Arctic, decided on Inuvik in part because of the ample availability of gravel along the shores of the Mackenzie River. When the Inuvialuit, the indigenous people residing around Inuvik and the Mackenzie Delta, were negotiating their land claims agreement with the Canadian government, they made sure to include access and rights to gravel. The Inuvialuit Settlement Region has a Granular Resources Management Plan, and “How do I access my personal gravel allotment?” is even a frequently asked question on the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation’s website. This likely stems from the fact that every Inuvialuit beneficiary is allowed “up to 32m³ of borrow material (i.e. sand and gravel).”

Across the border in Alaska, gravel is just as important and gets scarcer as you move west. When I traveled to Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), the northernmost community in the United States, last March for the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s (UIC) Indigenous Business Development Tour, I had the opportunity to witness a rare explosion of dynamite in a gravel pit. Like the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, UIC closely manages its gravel resources, which it does through a subsidiary, UIC Sand & Gravel, LLC. During the business tour, a UIC representative explained, “Nothing in Barrow happens without a gravel source – they are the backbone and the heart of the community for any future development. They are a critical component to our future success.”

After learning about the importance of gravel to Alaskan Arctic communities, we piled into a tour bus and went out to the mine site. Some of us stood out on the road for a good 15 minutes as the countdown proceeded. The temperature was in the negative 20s, and probably closer to -40 with the wind chill. People were pretty darn ready for the mine to blow. It felt like an eternity to us, but UIC had been waiting much, much longer – over a year, in fact, to obtain the permits. In the still air, someone cracked a joke about the Arctic lemmings that would be saying goodbye today. The clock approached 0, and then the mine blew.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an explosion on this scale before, even though we were a mile away. In a loud puff, the sooty mushroom cloud expanded and dissipated quickly over the cloudless tundra.

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Crazily enough, UIC let us explore the gravel pit after employees checked for any unexploded ordinance. There were about 20 of us in safety vests clamoring up the rocks in a surreal black and white landscape.

There’s a Scottish photographer, Robert Ormerod. He’s interesting in finding out what happened to people who wanted to be astronauts when they were children. What did they end up doing when they grew up, he wonders?

As one of those people with space dreams as a kid, this was pretty much the closest I’ve ever come to walking on the moon.

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The bits of rocks would be sorted, crushed, and turned into gravel for use in the town of Utqiaġvik. Next time you see a driveway in the North American Arctic, think of all the work that went into obtaining the fine little pebbles that, down south, seem pretty much expendable. As one UIC representative explained, “That’s 1.5 years of permitting that went up in a few seconds. We got the permit last Thursday and were blowing stuff up yesterday. It was a quick turnaround, and it’s exciting that we got to see it.” In a few days, the area would become “no blast” – I think because that’s when mating season starts for those pesky but adorable lemmings.

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A collared lemming.

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Check out that fine gravel blast.

One year ago: Canada Day in the Yukon

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The Maple Leaf blows proudly over Eagle Plains, Yukon: The only services for hundreds of miles around.

The air was thick with the sound of mosquitos buzzing at Engineer Creek, our chosen campsite for the night in the Yukon. It was Canada Day – July 1, 2016. We’d driven close to ten hours to this boggy place to lie our heads from Inuvik, the administrative center of Canada’s Western Arctic. It was here at our starting point, in the 1950s, that the Canadian government decided to plop down a town on the tundra in order to govern the north. The Dempster Highway, the only way out of Inuvik, would come in the decades to follow, linking Inuvik to Canada’s south. Ottawa pretty much dreamed up the town and the 737-kilometer long highway as ways to enhance sovereignty and access northern resources. In effect, Inuvik and the Dempster Highway are symbols of the Canadian state. So what better way to experience Canada Day than to drive along a highway that permanently etched the Canadian state into a territory long inhabited by the Gwich’in people, grizzly bears, wolverines, and moose?

The hours passed as the seven of us plus one fluffy dog increased our distance from Inuvik along the highway. The trees, stunted from growing in unstable, shifting permafrost, became stronger and sturdier as we made our way south. After what must have been about 4 or 5 hours, we stopped in Eagle Plains for a bite to eat and some gas. Everyone has to stop here, since it’s the only gas station around for hundreds of miles.

This being Canada Day, the restaurant’s television was airing a feature on what Canadians thought Canada represented. People of all ethnicities and nationalities, from a Yellowstone Aboriginal woman to a recent arrival to Toronto from Syria, cheerfully said things like “Tolerance!” and “Opportunity!” This segment was followed by a feature that found random Canadians on the street in New York City, not too far from Trump Tower, to ask them what they thought about Donald Trump, who had yet to be elected. Canadians were mostly perplexed and horrified, as they remain today. Canada’s identity, it can be said, in no small part comes from trying to distinguish itself from its southern, more orange neighbor – especially on Canada Day.

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The saloon at Eagle Plains.

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Placemats in the restaurant at Eagle Plains.

As we piled back into the aptly named Yukon SUV and drove south, the mountains reached higher and higher into the sky. The windshield grew thick with the carcasses of mosquitos. We were in the Yukon. “Larger than life” is the territory’s motto, but a woman I met once from Whitehorse couldn’t stand it. Why? Because it made the territory seem vacant and empty, even though First Nations people had lived there for tens of thousands of years. The Bluefish Caves, the oldest known archaeological site in North America, are in the Yukon. Earlier this year, scientists published a paper in the prestigious PLOS One journal estimating human occupation in the Bluefish Caves since 24,000 years ago.

In other words, the Dempster Highway, which opened in the 1970s, has existed for 0.002% of the time since humans are thought to have inhabited the Yukon. But yet, it’s become a symbol of the Canadian North – much more so than, say, the Bluefish Caves. The gravel road has left an indelible imprint on the environmental and cultural landscape of the north. As the Canadian state penetrated north thanks to the highway, so did Red Rose tea, all-dressed and ketchup-flavored potato chips, skidoos (a Canadian invention), and American RVs, which slogged all the way up to Inuvik. (Tim Horton’s has yet to open up a shop in Inuvik, much to the chagrin of many residents). The artificial settlement even attracted Queen Elizabeth II to visit in 1970 on the Centennial of the Northwest Territories. A hundred years prior, Hudson’s Bay Company had transferred the land to Canada. A country born of a company.

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Queen Elizabeth in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, 1970. Photo published in Up Here Magazine.

As an American, celebrating Canada Day in the Yukon felt both familiar and foreign. With my newfound Canadian friends, who were so welcoming and generous, we made s’mores by the side of the Ogilvie River. This seemed pretty much par for the course for summer in the USA, but then I noticed how the back of the graham cracker box had instructions for “biscuits-sandwich à la guimauve.” This is what Quebeckers call the gooey North American treat, as if eating a s’more wasn’t enough of a mouthful. As the night progressed, instead of fireworks lighting up the night, a rainbow unfurled across a soft blue sky around 1:30 am. It was never going to get dark, because we were way up north.

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A rainbow around 1:30 am in the early hours after Canada Day.

We spent the next few days hiking and looking for wildlife in the incredible Tombstone Territorial Park. Just as the Northwest Territories traces its origins to a company, the park paradoxically traces its origins to a highway. The Management Plan for the park from 2009 states,

“In 1974, the federal government identified a park reserve on the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development land maps. The reserve was designed to “protect” the view of Tombstone Mountain from the newly built Dempster Highway.”

Nature was initially preserved, in other words, for the pleasure of tourists and travelers driving by rather than for the benefit of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in who traditionally resided in the area or for the flora and fauna that live there. The park’s location was picked from the top down by state officials looking at a map rather than wandering out in the land. There’s no doubting that the view was a stunner, especially with the sunrise and sunset being only about an hour apart. But there’s something empty feeling that it was chosen based on the automobile’s gaze.

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The view of the Tombstone Mountains from just off the highway.

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The view at night from Goldensides, a trailhead you can easily drive to from the highway.

Thinking back on Canada Day, the country has made huge strides since the 1970s, when the Dempster Highway was put in, when the park reserve was created, and when the Queen visited the Northwest Territories. Some things are still the same. The Dempster Highway is being extended to Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean, and will open later this year if all goes according to plan. A few days ago, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cambridge visited Nunavut to commemorate Canada’s 150 Centenary, drinking tea with elders in Iqaluit.

But in a more progressive direction, Tombstone Territorial Park itself was created as part of the 2004 land claims settlement with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, who co-manage the park with the Yukon Territorial Government. Further north, two Inuvialuit companies are building the Dempster Highway extension. And recognition of the value of traditional knowledge across Canada is gradually growing.

I came across a quote by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Percy Henry in an autobiography by Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes. He stated of the Tombstone Range:

“You have everything you want there. There’s all kinds of berries, fish and little animals that live in that country. I was born and raised in that country.”

“That country” refers to Tombstone, not Canada. That country, the land, will always be there in some form or another. While Canada Day this year celebrates the country’s 150th anniversary, it’s worth asking what Canada will be like in another one and a half centuries. Will the Dempster Highway still exist, given the rapidity of climate change? Will graham cracker boxes in Canada still come with s’mores recipes in English and French, or will Quebec finally split off? Answers to these questions are yet unknown, but in any case, at her current rate, Queen Elizabeth II will likely still be the head of state.

Interpretive sign at Tombstone Territorial Park

Whose vast country?

In 2167, Canada will also probably still be viewing the U.S. with equal parts obsession, bemusement, and horror, assuming its unruly southern neighbor does not self-implode in the next three and a half years to 150 years. Driving back from Tombstone to Inuvik, we made the prerequisite stop at Eagle Plains. In the restaurant, CBC News played on the television. It felt like Groundhog Day in a way, as it was now July 4 rather than July 1. The same, but different. Independence Day rather than Canada Day. Just like the difference between Canadian and American Thanksgiving.

Not having slept the night before, I ingested with bleary eyes the statistics that flashed on the screen. Apparently, Americans eat 150 million hot dogs on the Fourth of July. That’s 150 million chien-chauds, hot-dogs, or steamés, if you’re French Canadian. 

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Stunted trees to the left and right of the Dempster Highway, a road built partly on permafrost.