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Lure of US oil for Canada natives

The Ottawa government opposes oil exploration in US Arctic refuge, but native groups see opportunities.

US President Bush's plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil exploration has horrified Ottawa.

But on the ground - or on the tundra, rather, up north - the picture is mixed. Aboriginal peoples, long adamantly opposed to development of Arctic energy resources, are seeing opportunity under that permafrost. Some aboriginals, anyway.

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Stephen Kakfwi, premier of Canada's Northwest Territories, fought energy development as a young man in the 1970s. Today, he's one of its biggest promoters.

What changed?

Land ownership, for one thing. In both the Canadian Arctic and Alaska, agreements negotiated with governments have given - or restored - ownership of the land to native peoples.

In the 1970s, without land ownership, "people didn't feel [energy development] was in their own interest, in terms of jeopardizing their resources and their lifestyle," says Nellie Cournoyea, a former territorial premier and now the head of the Inuvialuit Resource Corp., in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

Ownership has given native groups a powerful incentive to develop resources - not just for the royalty revenue, but for the employment and training opportunities. Cutbacks in federal transfer payments provide an added nudge.

"At the time of the initial thrust [for development], benefits to the aboriginal people were not clearly identified," says Ms. Cournoyea. "And even when they were clearly articulated, it was incomprehensible to the governments of the day, and to industry, that aboriginal people should want meaningful involvement in energy development."

Native peoples now have the education to take high-skills energy-sector jobs, according to Pierre Alvarez, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in Calgary, Alberta. "They're living in both worlds - enjoying traditional lifestyles and participating in the modern economy."

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"The Inupiak Eskimos of the Arctic Slope stand to gain substantially, in real dollars" from oil development, says Niles Cesar, an official at the US Department of the Interior in Juneau, Alaska, and himself a Tlingit Indian. The Inupiak believe development of the oil resources on their lands within the Arctic refuge is necessary for them to afford to maintain the wilderness state of the other lands they own. "I would say the preponderance of native people support drilling in ANWR," Mr. Cesar adds. "Nothing moves on the North Slope without the involvement of the Inupiak."

Doyon Ltd., for instance, a corporation in Fairbanks, Alaska, established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, has five mobile drilling rigs specially designed to work under harsh Arctic conditions. "The industry is just coming out of a downturn," says Jim Mery, Doyon's vice president for lands and natural sources. "Most of our rigs are in the process of going back to work."

Where land claims remain to be settled, however, native enthusiasm for the energy sector is more muted. Michael Nadli, grand chief of the Deh Cho First Nation in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, is still in negotiations. While there is wealth to be gained from exploitation of nonrenewable mineral resources, he stresses that the most important thing is protection of the land. "Governments and industry and the public have to take the view that there has to be moral and environmental responsibility," he says.

For others, opposition to drilling in the Arctic refuge is intense. The Gwichin people, about 15,000 strong across Alaska and Canada's Yukon and Northwest Territories, fear it could disrupt calving grounds for the caribou on which their culture, and practically their entire livelihood, depend. The Porcupine Caribou herd, one of the largest free-roaming herds in the world, bears its young on a narrow strip of coastal plain between the North Mountains of Alaska and the Beaufort Sea within the wildlife refuge. "It's not just an environmental issue, but a cultural and human rights issue," says Joe Linklater, grand chief of the Gwichin First Nation in the Yukon. "Once the caribou are gone, we're gone.... The caribou are not going to drop their calves in an area where there's activity, where the area has been disturbed."

Oliver Leavitt, chairman and vice president for lands of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation in Barrow, Alaska, disagrees. "We had the same fears as the Gwichin with the discovery of [oil in] Prudhoe Bay," he says. "But we've been proven wrong.... We think the caribou is a pretty strong critter."

Mr. Leavitt adds that current technology leaves a much "smaller footprint" on the land and makes energy development less disruptive to wildlife than was the case in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Ottawa may have some leverage as it communicates concerns to Washington. Canada and the US "are energy-interdependent," says David Anderson, Canada's environment minister. The US imports considerable natural gas from Canada, and Alaskan oil moves south through a pipeline across the Yukon. Development of Alaska's offshore gas will require another pipeline to get it to markets in the lower 48 states - a pipeline that somewhere or other will have to cross Canada. "We would expect a high level of deference to the nation which provides [the US] with so much of its energy supplies and plays such a role in energy transportation.

"Those who wish to drill have to prove their case rather than the other way around," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society