SEASON TWO | EPISODE EIGHT
OIL AND WATER
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Nick Mott This season of Threshold is underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
[MUSIC: UTQIAGVIK DANCERS AND DRUMMERS]
Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and I’m in Utqiagvik, Alaska, watching a performance of traditional dancing and drumming at the Iñupiat Heritage Center. This dance is called “I Feel Like a Little Old Man.”
[MUSIC: UTQIAGVIK DANCERS AND DRUMMERS]
Amy Martin Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in the United States. You might know of it as Barrow, Alaska, but a few years ago, the community voted to return it to its original Iñupiaq name. With around 4,500 people, it’s the largest town for hundreds of miles and the hub of a huge region called the North Slope Borough. The Borough is kind of like a county, except it’s almost as big as the state of Wyoming and it has less than 10,000 people living in it. Utqiagvik is on the coast: on one side of town, the Beaufort Sea is quite literally lapping at the door, on the other, the marshy tundra extends to the horizon. This place is flat, and it’s cold. I was there at the end of August, and it snowed on me. Twice.
[MUSIC: UTQIAGVIK DANCERS AND DRUMMERS]
Amy Martin Almost all of these traditional Iñupiaq dances portray relationships with animals and the landscape. There’s the “Polar Bear Shake,” and the “Duck Walk.” The movements evoke waves and wind, and crews of people paddling boats and scouting for prey. It’s a window into a culture that is defined by hunting.
[MUSIC: UTQIAGVIK DANCERS AND DRUMMERS]
Amy Martin You can’t grow crops or raise farm animals in this environment. If you want to eat, you have to go kill something. So the Iñupiat have become incredibly skilled hunters. They catch fish, seals, geese, caribou. But nothing provides as much food as a whale.
Gordon Brower You know when you catch a whale you can feed a thousand people or more than with one whale.
Amy Martin This is Gordon Brower.
Gordon Brower We have been doing that for thousands of years to survive. That’s the only way we could have survived here.
Amy Martin Gordon is a whaling captain. But he says he’s seen and heard things on TV that make him feel a little uncomfortable talking to outsiders about that part of his life.
Gordon Brower And it kind of makes me to believe there’s a big dislike for anybody that kills whales, and do things like that. But for those that have to live, and have been doing this for thousands of years, and our archaeological history here, it dates back several thousand years of constant use, and hunting whales and providing food for our communities.
Amy Martin It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the whale here in Utqiagvik. The average winter temperature in this part of Alaska is about negative 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s the average. It often gets a whole lot colder than that. The sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for about two months. But for thousands of years, whales have kept communities alive through the cold, dark Arctic winters, and here in Utqiagvik, people still depend on whales for food and for cultural survival.
But they also depend on oil. Alaska’s North Slope is one of the most oil-rich regions in North America. There’s also a lot of natural gas and coal. Taking that stuff out of the ground is big business, and a portion of the money from that business makes its way back to Iñupiaq communities, funding schools, hospitals, roads and more. But oil and gas development comes at a cost. The drilling can disrupt or displace the animals that feed people here, and of course, carbon emissions from fossil fuels are warming the planet, and especially the Arctic. And that is not good for whales, or whalers.
So, what do you do when the thing you can’t live without in the short term is the same thing that threatens your very existence in the long term? That’s our question for this episode, viewed through the eyes of two whalers from Utqiagvik, Alaska.
Amy Martin One of the first things young Arctic whalers have to learn is how to handle themselves on the ice.
Gordon Brower Our camps were sometimes 15 miles out, offshore. We would live offshore for up to a month trying to harvest these marine mammals. And we still do that today.
Amy Martin Gordon Brower says that in Utqiagvik, the whale hunt happens from traditional skin boats – small, light crafts, made by the hunters themselves, and powered by paddles – not motors. The whaling crews take these boats out to the edge of the sea ice and set up camps there.
Gordon Brower My earliest recollection is maybe 10 years old, maybe 9 years old, of being the young guy and doing the minimal things required of us, like keep the stove lit, make sure to harvest ice for water, and know where and learn to get freshwater on the ice.
Amy Martin We learned in our last episode about how older sea ice tends to be thicker and stronger. But Gordon says another key difference is that multi-year ice has less salt in it.
Gordon Brower Multi-year ice, over time, gets bleached and the salt comes out of it, and you can find these areas of freshwater in multi-year ice.
Amy Martin As sea ice forms, it sort of squeezes the salt molecules out. And the older it is, the fresher it is. This is really important to whalers, because, like Gordon said, they live on the ice during the hunt, and you can’t drink out of the open ocean. So, as the Arctic warms up, and the multi-year ice melts away–
Gordon Brower Now you’re gonna bring your own water from shore to your camp offshore because you’re not seeing these glaciated-type ice develop that develop over long periods of time that are salt free. And so those are some of the subtle differences that you see but they’re a big difference when you got to live on the ice because you don’t have a freshwater source just feet away from you anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore.
Amy Martin Is it more dangerous?
Gordon Brower Yeah, it’s considerably, I think more dangerous. You’re not as sure-footed on the ice anymore out there.
Amy Martin Hunting whales has always been risky, especially from skin boats. In fact, just this October, two Utqiagvik hunters died when their boat capsized as they were hauling a whale in. But because of climate change, the risks are greater now. More people are falling through the ice, especially on snowmobiles, while hunting or traveling. And of course, loss of sea ice affects all kinds of Arctic animals, too. Polar bears, narwhals, walruses, seals, even birds. They all use the sea ice in different ways, and as those animals are impacted, so are the people who depend on them. And the warming happening on land affects the hunt too.
Gordon Brower You have to be able to preserve that food and maintain its edibility. You have to be able to eat that, and not have it spoil on you. And that’s what permafrost represents.
Amy Martin Permafrost, as you’ll remember, is just soil that stays frozen all year round for two years or more. It&’s still common in Utqiagvik to have a permafrost cellar – a big hole cut into the frozen ground, where you can store whale meat or anything else you want to keep cool.
Gordon Brower For thousands of years we’ve been able to preserve entire whale by cutting it up into blocks and preserve it, and put it inside the Earth, in caches that are literally inside the Earth. The Earth is our refrigerator.
Amy Martin But as the Arctic warms up, those permafrost cellars aren’t as reliable anymore. Gordon says they sometimes thaw unexpectedly, and food goes bad. All over Utqiagvik, actually, I saw signs of permafrost thaw and erosion. Roads buckling and sinking, sea walls under repair. It felt kind of like a much bigger version of Shishmaref. There is no question that this region is warming up, and Gordon says everyone’s trying to adapt as quickly as they can.
Gordon Brower It was a gradual change and then it accelerated. In the 70s, you had multi-year ice all the way up to the 1980s. And to me that’s a vivid memory because that’s when I was very active as a young person. You would see probably retreats in the 70s maybe 15, 20 miles. But today, you’re looking at a retreat of ice for hundreds of miles.
Amy Martin But even with all of these changes, Gordon says the whaling traditions are still strong here, and when they do catch a whale, they use every part of it, and share the food throughout the community.
Gordon Brower The whale brings on a festival of its own. And everybody gets new garments and clothing and, and sometimes people get married and other things happen. And it is a festival period centered around the whale.
Amy Martin How does that make you feel as the whaling captain when you see people enjoying the meat?
Gordon Brower It feels good because a whale means so much because there’s the widows, there’s the ill, there’s the children. There’s the ability to make food manageable for a large community. So, I think for me it makes me feel warm. It makes me feel good that I’m doing a service for my community.
Amy Martin The whales hunted in this part of the Arctic are mostly bowheads – incredible creatures by almost any measure. They spend their entire lives in the Arctic, and they can grow to 60 feet long. But like so many other kinds of whales, the bowhead population was devastated by commercial whaling.
For about 300 years, starting in the early 1600s, whales were aggressively hunted worldwide. Their blubber was rendered into oil, which lit homes across Europe, and later the Americas, and their baleen was used in all kinds of products where a strong but flexible material was required, from corsets to springs for typewriters. It was this industrial-level hunting that caused whale populations to plummet, leading to the near-universal ban on commercial whaling today.
But for indigenous communities in the Arctic, whales weren’t historically a source of cash – they were a source of food. Whale meat, blubber, and organs are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, and communities had always taken only the number of whales they could consume. So the Iñupiat and other Inuit groups fought hard for the right to maintain a subsistence hunt, and they now follow regulations set by the International Whaling Commission. To be part of a crew providing this food for the community was, and is, a major source of pride.
Amy Martin Do you think of yourself as an Arctic person?
Price Leavitt I would say yes.
Amy Martin And what does that mean, to be Arctic.
Price Leavitt That means to be able to go out and go hunt.
Amy Martin This is Price Leavitt. He’s in his mid-60s with salt and pepper hair, and an easy smile. At the time of our interview, he was the executive director of the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the regional tribal government.
Price Leavitt The main thing that satisfies me in my mind and heart is being able to go out hunt, you know, the types of animals that keeps us healthy.
Price says when he was growing up, there was only one grocery store in town, and it didn’t always have very much in it. So hunting wasn’t really about recreation. It was about survival. In fact, the whole notion of going to a store and buying food imported from somewhere else is really new here. Price says his father grew up living almost exclusively off of what could found in the local area.
Price Leavitt Yeah, my dad remembered having milk from caribou in his younger days. And they were living from place to place wherever they could find food.
Amy Martin Today, the grocery stores are more reliably stocked, but all of that food has to be flown or shipped in – and the costs can be enormous. A gallon of milk can run you ten dollars. A box of cereal can be eight or nine. So, the ability to hunt still really matters here, and whaling is definitely the pinnacle hunting experience. But when Price was a child, and all of his friends were going out onto the ice to learn the whaling traditions, he was told he had to stay home.
Price Leavitt It kind of tore, you know, tore your heart. I mean, it was always there and it always tormented me, that, you know, I want to be, go out and go whaling.
Amy Martin Price was named after an uncle who drowned in the sea shortly before Price was born, and his parents were worried the same thing might happen to him. It’s a strong Iñupiaq belief that when you name a child after someone, that person lives on in a very tangible way in their namesake, including possibly sharing their fate. So, Price’s parents kept him off the ice. It was a loving attempt to keep him safe, but for Price, it was torture.
Price Leavitt I wanted to be a whaling captain.
Amy Martin Did you argue with them?
Price Leavitt No.
Amy Martin Respect for your elders is a strong element of Iñupiaq culture. Price says arguing with your parents just wasn’t done.
Price Leavitt Yeah, and they, they told me, well go to school, and I concentrated on school, and I turned out to be a teacher’s pet. [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin Price was a good student, and there was no high school in Utqiagvik at that time, so like lots of Alaska Native kids in his generation, he was sent to boarding school – a place called Mount Edgecumbe, in Sitka, Alaska, more than a thousand miles away.
Price Leavitt I would get homesick like a lot of us, and we had our moments crying for our parents.
Amy Martin But overall, Price had a great experience at boarding school. He didn’t encounter the abuse and forced assimilation that traumatized many indigenous children.
Price Leavitt I think ended up going there at the right time, being with the right teachers, and I just bloomed there.
Amy Martin Price did so well in school that he ended up getting into to Stanford. He was 19 years old in 1972 when he left for California.
Price Leavitt Man, that was what they would say, two words: cultural shock.
[HISTORICAL TAPE: VIETNAM NEWS REPORT]
Amy Martin The war was raging in Vietnam. In August, Richard Nixon was nominated for a second term. And in October, Miles Davis played a concert at Stanford.
[MILES DAVIS CONCERT]
Amy Martin Price’s father lived a semi-nomadic life on the Arctic tundra. His formal schooling ended at first grade. And here was Price, one generation later at Stanford University in sunny California, pretty close to the epicenter of hippie culture. It was an intense transition. But he liked it. Mostly.
Price Leavitt Oh man, that hot weather was – I could never get used to hot weather.
Amy Martin Price studied English, and writing. He even took a class from Paul Ehrlich, the famous biologist, and he remembers that that was the first time he heard about how fossil fuel pollution could mess up the planet’s climate.
But while Price was advancing in the classroom, he was keenly aware that he was moving even further away from this other kind of education that he’d always longed for: knowledge of his own culture, and the expertise that can only be gained through action on the land and water, in collaboration with friends and family. So, after two years, he came home to Utqiagvik. He worked in construction and began to pursue his dream. He was determined to become a whaling captain.
Price Leavitt So I decided, yeah, I gotta do it.
Amy Martin So when you decided to become a whaling captain, do you have to get, like, permission from other whaling captains, or can you just decide I’m going to do this?
Price Leavitt Just decide on my own. It’s got to be the will, to, you know, set your goals and do what’s going to satisfy your heart and mind.
Amy Martin Price says he went out with aunt’s whaling crew, where he was given fairly easy tasks at first, so he could watch and learn. And he got help from his younger brother, too.
Price Leavitt He’s never hesitated to go help me, like, I would get a step, and I would call him. I took notes, and I took pictures. That took, like, six years.
Amy Martin While he was working on becoming a whaling captain, Price was also pursuing other goals. He built his own house, and eventually got his contractor’s license. He continued taking college classes, and in 2005 he earned his bachelor’s degree. But for him, the biggest milestone came in 2012.
Price Leavitt I was able to build my own boat frame, put seal skin on it, skin cover on it so. I was able to go out spring whaling in 2012. So. I’ve been a whaling captain since then.
Amy Martin Price is now teaching his 26-year-old daughter to carry on these traditions.
Price Leavitt She’s, you know, the one person that I trust to be with me going up caribou hunting, or geese hunting, or whaling. So, I take her with me all the time.
Amy Martin For people who don’t grow up in a hunting culture, which is most of us these days, it can be hard to understand how this process of killing an animal for food can also bond people to those same animals. Visitors to the Arctic love to learn about whales and take pictures – and I was certainly one of those visitors – but to Price, there’s a visceral awareness of how much he needs the whales – that the fate of his culture and his community is bound up with the fate of this animal. So, for him, to be a whale hunter is to be a whale protector.
Price Leavitt You know, like they say, the fossil fuels are disappearing and I think what my mentality has been to kind of pick up the old ways to sustain you know our, our livelihood here and our survival. And I think to keep our environment, the water, the land, to keep the animals, to protect them, that, that is what’s going to sustain us the next 50, 100 years from now.
Amy Martin Price is correct, of course: the fossil fuels will disappear in the future. But for right now, on the North Slope, it’s all systems go when it comes to oil and gas development. As we mentioned in our last episode, the Liberty Project was recently given the green light by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Oil and gas from Liberty will be the first to come out of Arctic federal waters in the United States. The owners need to get some more permits before they can begin construction, but the plan is to build an artificial island six miles off the coast of the North Slope, in the Beaufort Sea. That will then become a drilling platform for both oil and natural gas. Price says he thinks this is a bad idea because a spill could devastate the community’s ability to provide for itself.
Price Leavitt Then, you know, we would have to wait for store bought or rations from the government, and that would, that would deeply break my heart, to wait for a handout instead of getting what we’re so used to eating every year on our tables.
Amy Martin As I read through the announcement released by the Department of the Interior, one of the drilling requirements caught my eye: it said drilling “may occur only during times of solid ice conditions.”
This is pretty typical for oil and gas projects on the North Slope. The heavy equipment needed for drilling can’t run on unstable, partially thawed ground – it needs a frozen foundation. But this is an offshore project, so in this case, they’re talking about getting equipment and workers out to a job site on a road built on the sea ice. Which is obviously a problem in a world where sea ice is melting. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the leap here: how is the warming going to affect the drilling, I wondered? Will it slow the project down? Or possibly make it impossible?
And sure enough, shortly after the project received the nod from the Trump administration, Alaska Public Media reported that Hilcorp, the company behind this project, says it’s going to have to slow down construction of the drilling platform, because of, quote, “historically abnormal ice conditions in the Arctic.”
But of course those abnormal ice conditions are the new normal in the Arctic, and that’s being caused by the very substances the company aims to drill.
We’ll have more after this short break.
David Leavitt Long time ago, that, good ice all the time.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and this is David Leavitt, Price’s father. He’s 88 years old.
David Leavitt Really not good ice anymore. Yeah, ice isn’t, you know, it’s not good anymore.
Amy Martin David says when he was a child, the sea ice used to freeze up in October, and would often stay frozen into July. His eyes light up, as remembers taking the dogsled to summer celebrations in Utqiagvik.
David Leavitt Come up here with a dog team on July. Come up here for the fourth of July with a dog team! [LAUGHS] No, not anymore. You know, you know, that ice is not good anymore.
Amy Martin David says now the sea doesn’t freeze up until November, or even December sometimes. And it breaks up in June, or earlier. And this is because of the burning of fossil fuels, some of which are coming out this very same region.
The Prudhoe Bay oilfield, one of the largest oil fields in North America, is located inside the boundaries of the North Slope Borough, along with dozens of other oil and gas fields. And through leases, taxes and revenue sharing agreements, that fossil fuel development is funding basically everything in Utqiagvik and across the North Slope, from waste disposal to the heritage museum.
The story of why this is the way it is, and how the money gets from the oil field into the community, is pretty fascinating, but also really complicated. So I’m just going to give the extremely simplified version: when oil was discovered on the North Slope in the middle of the 20th century, the Iñupiat knew that big changes were coming, whether they liked it or not. And they knew what had happened to Native communities in the lower 48 when outsiders decided to take an interest in their land, so local leaders were determined not to let that happen to them.
They worked to create a bunch of different agreements that would ensure Iñupiaq people would maintain some control over their lands and their fate. And these agreements also ensured that the communities would get a cut of the oil wealth.
Gordon Brower Knowing that oil development was going to come, where we needed to do something so we were not completely overtaken and assimilated, but to find a way to balance and coexist.
Amy Martin Again, this is Gordon Brower.
Gordon Brower It was to protect subsistence, protect our resources, our cultural heritage. And we’ve been doing that for 40 years on the slope.
Amy Martin In addition to being a whaling captain, he’s the director of the planning department of the North Slope Borough. And he says the oil and gas money has made a real difference here.
Gordon Brower The ability to have schools, the ability to have police department, fire department, the ambulance, the hospitals – all of these things that come with development, that didn’t make us the ward of the federal government.
Gordon Brower And I think it’s been a balancing act and I think we have to live with that. Because I don’t see any other way. We have a need to adapt and use these modern tools in holding the industry accountable, so that we can continue to hunt our whales, we can continue to harvest on the land, and develop in a way that blends the two and work together.
Amy Martin Not everyone on the North Slope is sure that it’s possible the blend the two. The small village of Nuiqsut, east of Utqiagvik, is surrounded by oil wells, and residents have complained of respiratory problems and other health issues. But there are lots of factors working against anyone opposed to extractive industries here. Everyone knows they need whales, but they also know that they need schools and roads and hospitals.
Gordon Brower We don’t have any other horse to ride up here. The Arctic is an oil and gas province.
Amy Martin If you look at a map of oil and gas development on the North Slope, you can understand why Gordon says this. The whole region is peppered with places where drilling is already underway, or where it could be, soon. And there’s also the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve. Just so you can understand how big that is, Yellowstone National Park is about 2.2 million acres. But, the North Slope is also home to some of the biggest intact ecosystems in the world, including the 20-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And, of course, the waters just off the coast are home to the whales that Gordon values so much.
Gordon Brower If you’re thinking about contradicting myself in trying to balance oil and gas development with what’s going on today with the ice extent retreat, the permafrost issues that we’re having, I don’t know. But, I know we’re going to adapt. And we’ve still got to preserve the whale and do our best to preserve it and feed people.
Amy Martin Utqiagvik is in a catch-22. The oil and gas development that’s supporting their community now is the same thing that’s undermining their ability to maintain their traditions and their culture in the future.
But this is actually just a microcosm of the exact same catch 22 we’re all in: whether or not we live next to an oil rig, we’re all drinking from that poisoned well. I got to Utqiagvik and all around the Arctic on carbon-emitting airplanes. I’m recording this in a studio heated by natural gas. You’re listening to this on a device using electricity, and there’s a good chance it came from a power plant that burns fossil fuels.
And yes, we can all make individual choices to reduce our carbon footprints, but the deeper issue is that we’ve inherited a system that has made the fossil fuel choice for us. Oil and gas are woven into the fabric of our entire lives, but the damage from those same fuels threatens all of our cultures, and all of our futures.
Amy Martin This is a bowhead whale, recorded by the Norwegian Polar Institute. Scientists believe bowheads are the longest-lived mammals on the planet – some have lived more than 200 years. So, there could be a whale alive today that was born well before the American Civil War. And a bowhead born this year could potentially survive into the 23rd century. To us, that seems like an almost impossibly far-away time, but to a bowhead, it’s a future they may live to sing about.
Amy Martin Like humpback whales, bowheads sing long, complex songs. But a recent study found that while humpbacks tend to repeat their songs in a fixed structure, bowheads change them up. They improvise. And that led one scientist to dub them “the jazz musicians of the Arctic.”
The decisions we make in the next decade will have a huge impact on what the future holds for the bowheads, and the people who live in the Arctic, and all of us. Whatever happens, we’re all probably going to need to learn how to improvise.
Nick Mott Reporting for season two of Threshold was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Park Foundation, and by you, our listeners. Our production partners are Montana Public Radio and PRI’s The World.
Amy Martin Threshold is made by Nick Mott, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki and me, Amy Martin, with help from Frank Allen, Jackson Barnett, Josh Burnham, Michael Connor, Rosie Costain, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein, Zoë Rom, Nora Saks, Maxine Speier and Zach Wilson. Special thanks to Kathy Itta-Ahgeak and the drummers and dancers of the Iñupiat Heritage Center, Nicolas Gueco, Anne Jensen, Neil Kinnebrew, Andy Stemp, Norman Edwards and Ilisagvik College. Our music is by Travis Yost.
And, next time on Threshold: Russia.
Amy Martin Does this feel like a democracy?
Elena No of course not. I think we are not free here, really.