THE ESKIMO AND THE OIL MAN. By Bob Reiss. Grand Central. 304 pages, $28.
The top of the world is melting and the effects are cascading down on all of us. Sea ice is disappearing, causing ecosystems, those vast kingdoms of life, to collapse.
First to feel the changes are communities of native peoples that still rely heavily on hunting, fishing and whaling for survival. But the ice’s retreat also has opened new shipping lanes and exposed the oil-rich seafloor, which is accessible for exploitation, spurring nations to grab up as much Arctic Ocean seabed as they can and begin extracting oil and gas from subsurface wells.
In “The Eskimo and the Oil Man,” veteran journalist Bob Reiss tells the engrossing story of the changing Arctic through the eyes of two very different men: Edward Itta, a 64-year-old Inupiat Eskimo, and Pete Slaiby, a white 52-year-old engineer in charge of Shell Oil’s Alaska Venture.
From 2005 to late 2011, Itta was mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, a gargantuan county inhabited by 7,500 people, about two-thirds Inupiat.
“If we lose the ocean, we have lost the Inupiat Eskimo,” Itta is quoted as saying. He is a man “walking in two worlds,” the ancient native world of the far north and the white man’s rapacious modern world, but he is personally and politically committed to the continued existence of the Inupiat people and their way of life.
As the representative for the North Slope, Itta is a sought-after figure in the oil industry’s quest to open up the American Arctic to drilling.
Slaiby diligently works to persuade Itta to support Shell’s exploratory drilling off the North Slope’s windswept coast. Slaiby is frustrated, not with the natives’ response but with the federal government. Despite investing more than $3.5 billion since 2005 in oil and gas leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, Shell has not been allowed to drill a single exploratory well.
A skillful interviewer with an ear for the telling detail, Reiss follows Itta and Slaiby for the better part of a year. To get his story, Reiss sinks himself deep in the Arctic tundra. He interviews scientists and industry executives, indigenous fishermen and hunters, and military and government officials.
The author supplies the reader with voices from all sides, so many that all the names, attributed quotes and organization acronyms risk drowning out the book’s significant points.
“America needs to think of itself as an Arctic nation,” Reiss concludes. Other Arctic countries, particularly Russia and Norway, are moving full steam ahead staking undersea claims and building a military presence in the region.
The United States, meanwhile, is the only country yet to ratify the United Nations’ Law of the Sea Treaty, leaving it outside “the process by which land might be awarded under the treaty,” explains Reiss.
Reiss shies away from addressing the bigger questions that his book arouses. He does not delve into the wisdom or morality of expanding the pumping of hydrocarbons from the Earth. Without assigning blame or asking why, he accepts climate change and calls himself “a believer in global warming theory.”
What is certain is that the climate is changing and the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Arctic nations are swooping in to exploit natural resources found beneath what had been solid ice just a decade or two ago. Not just oil and gas but diamonds, copper, gold and rare Earth minerals. Everything will be extracted; that is inevitable.
Inevitable is a word that occurs again and again in “The Eskimo and the Oil Man.” The caribou, polar bears, walrus, bowhead whales and Inupiat people who depend on these creatures for their livelihood and identity must all adapt or they will go the way of the vanishing ice.
Reviewer Carlin Rosengarten, a writer based in McClellanville