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Eskimos Speak for, Against Arctic Drilling

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
    KAKTOVIC, Alaska— Most Inupiat Eskimos are said to support oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but that wasn't immediately clear from a chilly reception New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici and a congressional delegation received Sunday.
    As their plane touched down near this remote whaling village Sunday morning, about a dozen Inupiat residents stood on a runway alongside the Arctic Ocean. They held handmade signs protesting the Republican-controlled Congress' effort to open the wildlife preserve to oil exploration.
    Some shouted protests at the lawmakers and two Cabinet secretaries as they boarded buses that would take them to a community meeting and a more polite atmosphere.
    "They are going to pollute our hunting areas, where we get our food to feed our families and where we get our garments to stay warm," said Jane Thompson, a lifelong Kaktovic resident who bundled up against the minus-15 degree temperature in wolf-skin boots and a parka lined with wolverine fur.
    Leaders in the village of about 250 people said the protesters are a minority. About two-thirds of the small whaling community support drilling and the jobs and revenue it could bring, they said.
    But the dissent evident in Kaktovic on Sunday morning reflected an ongoing national debate among environmentalists and oil-drilling advocates, who have wrestled with the issue for more than four years.
    Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is leading a charge in Congress to open the refuge. And even though the issue was still being debated here Sunday, a decision on ANWR drilling is expected to be made in Washington, D.C., in the next couple of months by U.S. lawmakers from 50 states.
    "The environmental risks, from what we have learned, will be minimal, and the United States has a chance to benefit enormously," Domenici told reporters on the congressional tour Sunday.
    A U.S. Geologic Survey has estimated that the refuge could contain 10 billion barrels of oil, an amount that Domenici and others contend could help wean America off foreign oil sources.
    The Inupiat Eskimos live in the middle of the so-called "1002" area, a 1.5-million-acre expanse within the 19-million-acre refuge that would be targeted for exploration.
   
Residents' concerns
    Domenici, along with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, attended a town-hall meeting here Sunday and heard from about 60 spirited residents, both for and against ANWR drilling.
    Fenton Rexford, a 54-year-old resident of Kaktovic, stood up and defended proposals to open the refuge.
    "Everything that is here in this village is from oil," Rexford said. "Whether it is new schools, health clinics, the places we work— we are enjoying the benefits of oil. Where would we be without Prudhoe Bay?"
    Prudhoe Bay, some 50 miles west of Kaktovic, is home to some of America's most plentiful oil reserves. The Alaskan people have seen tremendous economic benefits from Prudhoe Bay oil sales since drilling began there in the 1970s.
    Freddie C. Aishanna, a stocky, 38-year-old whaling captain with black hair and a bushy beard, said he also supports opening ANWR to drilling. But he said he feared it would lead to offshore drilling, which could drive whales farther out into the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, making it more dangerous for him and his crew to hunt.
    Aishanna said he has two daughters and a son, and he hopes ANWR drilling will provide them with jobs that will convince them not to leave Kaktovic for a more prosperous future.
    "I'm opposed to offshore drilling, but, yeah, open ANWR and let's see what comes from it," Aishanna said.
    Drue Pearce, a senior adviser for Alaska affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior, told those at the meeting that there are no proposals to extend onshore drilling at ANWR, if it is approved by Congress, to offshore sites.
    Sen. John Thune, the newly elected Republican from South Dakota who defeated former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in last November's election, said he learned a lot on the trip about the people ANWR drilling would affect.
    "Clearly, there are multiple points of view on this, and we're here today because we want to hear all sides of it," Thune said. "We want to make sure if and when it's done that it's done in a responsible way."
    Mary Margaret Brower, a lifelong Kaktovic resident, said the responsible thing to do is keep off her land.
    "This is my back yard," Brower said. "I don't want oil companies in my back yard."
    Domenici said he was satisfied with his two-day fact-finding mission and was convinced other members of Congress also learned a good deal.
    On Saturday, the delegation toured a drilling facility outside the ANWR area run by ConocoPhillips.
    The federal government paid for the congressional trip.
    "You can't believe it unless you see it," Domenici said, referring to the clean-extraction technologies employed by the Alaskan oil companies. "I'm glad I came."
    Thune said he was impressed with the new oil-extraction technology he witnessed during a tour of existing ConocoPhillips drilling sites near ANWR.
    Other Republican senators who traveled to Alaska included Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, and Bob Bennett of Utah. At least two Democrats, including Barak Obama of Illinois and Daniel Akaka, were invited but did not make the trip.
    Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexican who is the top Democrat on the energy panel, took a similar Alaskan tour in 2002. Bingaman opposes ANWR oil exploration.