Gathering Places


Sunday, November 18, 2001


British Petroleum's Milne Point facility
sits on Alaska's North Slope.

Alaska’s Inupiat people
long for development

As the Senate debates ways to provide for our nation's energy security, no issue has generated greater interest than exploration of oil and gas reserves within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the area could have between 5 to 16 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. Ten billion barrels equals 30 years of imports from Saudi Arabia.

In 1980, Congress established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- the largest in the world, encompassing 19 million acres in northeast Alaska. Eight million acres were designated wilderness lands and 11 million acres were designated nonwilderness lands. One-and-a-half million acres of non- wilderness land, situated along the Arctic Coastal Plain, were set aside for study of their potential oil reserves.

In 1995, I toured Alaska's North Slope, the Prudhoe Bay oil facilities, and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. I met with Barrow and North Slope borough leaders. I toured ANWR and visited the Inupiat Eskimo who live in Kaktovik, the only community in ANWR's Coastal Plain.

The Eskimo I met are subsistence hunters who depend on the land. Sixty percent of their diet comes from caribou, marine mammals, fish and waterfowl. As the inhabitants and stewards of the Coastal Plain for generations, they believe that properly regulated development is compatible with the environment, wildlife and their traditional practices.

I respect and trust the mana'o of the Inupiat Eskimo. I support their right to self-determination and their desire to explore economic development on their ancestral lands.

The Inupiat, indeed all Alaskan natives, are kindred spirits with Hawaiians. They share a strong and sacred bond to their lands and waters. The values of malama aina and malama kai characterize our peoples' relationship with our natural environment, which has shaped the development of both our cultures. This harmony with nature nourishes our native cultures. It shapes who we are as indigenous peoples.

No government, group, or individual knows the North Slope, including the Coastal Plain, better than the Inupiat. They know the land and the sea, the caribou, Bowhead whales and other animals that live on the North Slope and Beaufort Sea. They depend on these animals for their survival.

The issue is not one of development or preservation; the Inupiat Eskimo, wise caretakers of their lands for generations, are certain that development and preservation can co-exist. Thirty years of experience at the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk, Endicott, Lisburne, and Milne Point underscore their judgment. The strong support for energy development voiced by Inupiat Eskimo convinces me that a balance between economic development, traditional practices and environmental preservation is attainable on the Coastal Plain.

The Inupiat seek the benefits that economic development and revenues from energy development will bring to their local governments. Jobs and tax revenues from oil development have empowered the Inupiat to preserve their language, culture and traditions. In Kaktovik, they have built a school, health clinic and fire hall. They are planning for running water and sewers, and working to upgrade housing.

Economic development of the 92,000 acres they own on the Coastal Plain would permit them to build a better life for themselves. The right of the Inupiat Eskimo to self-determination, to decide what is pono for themselves and their children is the paramount reason I support opening the Coastal Plain study area to oil and gas leasing.

I understand the concerns raised by other native peoples who rely on the caribou. I have met with supporters and opponents of energy development in ANWR and know the issues well. The Inupiat have vested interests in ensuring strict environmental protection standards. Their local government already uses permitting and zoning powers to mandate responsible behavior by any visitor -- whether tourist or oil company.

Development would use only 2,000 of ANWR's 1.5 million acres. Over the past three decades, the acreage needed to produce oil has decreased and the technology used has improved. Horizontal drilling and directional wells have substantially reduced the footprint necessary for production. Requirements mandating the use of state-of-art technology and strict regulatory oversight will safeguard the porcupine caribou herd and the subsistence needs of Alaska's indigenous peoples.

The leasing program before the Senate includes strict environmental protection safeguards for the Coastal Plain, including regulations requiring seasonal closures to protect caribou calving areas, the habitat of other species of fish and wildlife and the rights of subsistence hunters.

America needs a comprehensive energy program that diversifies energy supplies, ensures reliable domestic energy sources, enhances energy conservation and safeguards the environment. As we debate development of the Coastal Plain, we should listen to the Inupiat Eskimo, the indigenous native peoples of Alaska's North Slope, who have protected the land, sea and wildlife for thousands of years.

I concur with their judgment that responsible development is workable.

Daniel K. Akaka, a Democrat, is the junior
United States senator from Hawaii.

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