Arctic Imperative: Edward Saggan Itta – Mayor, North Slope Borough

The speech that follows was presented by Edward Saggan Itta – Mayor of the North Slope Borough – at the Arctic Imperative Summit on Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska.

In the coming weeks, will feature a number of the presentations from the Summit.  For more details of the event, including video of each of the speakers, check out

We came together this week because — whether we like it or not — the polar region is changing. The natural world is constantly in a state of flux, but the pace at which we’ve seen the sea ice erode in recent years is unprecedented. The same goes for erosion eating away at our shores, or the number of months when the tundra is exposed. Our ice cellars are melting along with the permafrost.

People up north understand their terrain pretty well. My hometown of Barrow is full of people who have been trained to observe the Arctic coastal area. They learned it from their elders, who learned it from their elders, all the way back to prehistoric times. Generations of coastal people paid close attention to the behavior of Arctic winds and waves and sea ice because it affected their livelihood and their survival. It was their profession to understand the environment of the tundra and the near-shore Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Their salary was paid in caribou and walrus and waterfowl and the biggest prize of all — the bowhead whale.  If they were expert enough, they fed their families and shared their good fortune with other people nearby. It was a pretty straightforward existence in a place that didn’t give up its resources easily, and it made them a very practical people.

Survival was the Arctic imperative way back then, and it remained the dominant theme on the North Slope and throughout the state until the late 1960s. By then, Alaskans were eager to capitalize on the new oil discovery at Prudhoe Bay. This new imperative included construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, and its success made the State and the industry very wealthy. It freed state government from longstanding poverty and its humble status as a ward of the federal government.

It’s been a good 40-year run, and during that time Alaska has developed a new identity based on its ability to take care of its own needs and assert its own priorities. Unfortunately, an anti-federal mentality took hold over the years and continues to characterize the Alaskan attitude, despite huge federal spending levels here.

As Prudhoe Bay continues its production decline and the pipeline flow gradually dries up, Alaskans and our state government need to take a good look in the mirror and reflect on our attitude toward federal agencies. Because the future of oil and gas development is not on state land. It’s in federal and international waters.

The most important difference between our oil past and our oil future is that the future is not in State hands. The next wave of development will be a federal and international play, and decisions will be made at the Department of the Interior and the Arctic Council, not in the Capitol building in Juneau or the Frontier Building in Anchorage. If we as a State don’t participate a lot more vigorously on a wide range of concerns at the federal and international levels, Alaska will be seen only as a yes-man for industry and will lose its influence in shaping decisions.

During the past five years, I’ve had the privilege of frequently visiting Washington, D.C., to educate officials about a little-known culture in the American Arctic. I’ve visited nations around the globe as an Inuit leader who has practical concerns based on cultural considerations. At these higher political levels, people have really taken the time to understand where we’re coming from, and they have shown a willingness to adjust their approach accordingly.

Here at home — where we would expect to have a natural affinity and strong partnership with the State — it just isn’t happening. We should be crafting plans with our friends in Juneau on a whole range of issues at the front end of this new offshore era. We should be working together to raise the bar on standards for discharge and spill response and cumulative impacts. We should have approached industry together as we asked them to pause operations during the bowhead migration.

Instead, our success here in Alaska has come — not in partnership with the State — but through engagement with industry. You heard Pete Slaiby’s comments yesterday. We have developed a pretty darn good relationship with Shell in the process of working through a whole litany of development issues. We’ll never be in perfect agreement, but we’ve come to terms on several important policies. For example, Shell is willing to shut down its operations during the bowhead migration. They’ve also agreed to backhaul most of their drilling muds and cuttings instead of dumping them in the ocean. And Shell and the borough have begun a joint science program to identify local concerns and fund scientific research that will build the knowledge base in these areas.

By coming to the table with the belief that there are reasonable solutions to local concerns, I think Shell is moving toward a development program that will succeed because it will have support in urban and rural areas.

On the other hand, the State only comes to life when there’s an opportunity to cheer for industry. In comments to the OCS permitting agencies, the State makes it sound like Alaska is nothing more than an oil and gas colony. They don’t bother to address in detail any of the predicted impacts from exploration and development. They’re just full-steam ahead with blanket support for streamlined permits and minimal restrictions. They don’t express any substantive concerns about other things that make Alaska unique, like our Alaska Native populations who live in a constant struggle to maintain our culture and our traditional way of life. This is not just an abstract concern. It’s part of what makes Alaska so appealing to the roughly one million tourists who flock here each year.

When the State acts like a one-trick pony, what message does it send to the feds, who are struggling to find a balanced way forward? It’s a one-dimensional message — not very nuanced or thoughtful, and not terribly helpful to agencies that know they will be left holding the bag if something goes wrong out in the ocean.

Two years ago, I developed a set of eight policy points that represent what I believe would make OCS development a lot more acceptable to people up north. I’ve used these policy goals to focus my efforts in working for world-class operational standards in the Arctic. One of these is a requirement for pipelines to shore, so that oil produced in the ocean ends up in the TAPS pipeline, not on tankers headed south.

Other than Our Congressional delegation has drafted legislation to require shipping by pipeline, but other than that, nobody seems to be very excited about it. Which strikes me as odd, because unless that oil comes ashore, the State of Alaska will see virtually no benefit from OCS development. What we’ll have instead are substantial additional impacts and risks from tanker traffic through Arctic waters.

Industry tells me there is very little chance they would want to ship product by tanker. So what’s the harm in writing it into law and giving Alaskans the assurance that if the pipeline goes dry, it won’t be because of tankers in the ocean?

If I’m being a little rough on the State of Alaska, it’s because — as mayor of a municipality  — I look to the State for leadership. I don’t think we’re maximizing our political resources as a state, and that’s a shame. We’re missing opportunities to influence federal decisions and bring Alaskans together at the same time.

Forty years ago, the imperative of a Trans-Alaska pipeline brought Alaskans together — urban and rural, Native and non-Native. The success of that effort was partly due to a recognition that Native people possessed a claim to the lands they had occupied for millennia. And at the core of that legal claim was an ethical principle, a moral duty to honor the pre-existing cultures of Alaska.

The result was ANCSA, a land claims settlement that aimed to preserve Native peoples and their cultures at the same time as onshore development went ahead. Today we are faced with a new imperative offshore, another potentially massive opportunity for oil and gas development. The Inupiat may not have a strong legal claim to the ocean, but I believe there is still a cultural claim and an ethical responsibility to protect the waters that have always sustained us. The Arctic Ocean is home to the bowhead whale, which is at the center of our cultural universe. We do not survive without it, and both Alaskans and Americans have a moral responsibility to protect the state’s cultural heritage and diversity.

I believe we can do both — embark on a program of Arctic OCS development and create a buffer of safety that will ease our minds as people who have a permanent cultural attachment to these waters. I see the Arctic imperative as a call for cooperation — a call for federal, state and local governments to join with industry and Native organizations. It’s a call for all the stakeholders to embrace the need for a new generation of economic development;to share in the responsibility for preserving the Arctic environment; and to recognize the cultural claim of the indigenous people who have always inhabited that edge of the world.

Of course, the devil is in the details. I’ve already suggested that the State should engage on the full range of OCS issues and strengthen Alaska’s position by joining forces with local governments and Native organizations.

For its part, the federal government can reaffirm its trust responsibility — not just its legal responsibility to the regional tribe, but its larger ethical duty to our coastal Native people as a whole, which means engaging with a range of organizations voicing local concerns. Since the future of the Arctic will be determined in large part on an international level, I would ask the federal government to sponsor the participation of Arctic indigenous people at international forums, such as the Arctic Council, just as other Arctic nations have done with their indigenous peoples. We have appropriate organizations, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. We need to extend their reach in national and international realms.

These are just a few ideas, and more discussion could certainly yield others.

The North Slope is a long way from Juneau, which is a long way from D.C. I believe that part of the Arctic imperative is to overcome our distances — both physical and political. We must recognize that if Alaska’s economic future lies under the Arctic Ocean, the decisions governing that future will be made in Washington and international venues. Our success will depend on new alignments and new approaches to resolving many legitimate issues along the way.

We need to re-imagine the world of Arctic politics and find our place in it, because climate isn’t the only thing that’s changing north of the Arctic Circle. That is the imperative that should guide us in the Arctic … which is my home and my world.

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Edward Itta was elected Mayor of the North Slope Borough in November of 2005 and re-elected in 2008. Over the past two decades, he has held a variety of leadership positions for the regional government, including Chief Administrative Officer, Public Works Director, Planning Director and Director of Capital Improvement Program Management. He has held management and liaison positions for subsidiaries of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), including Arctic Slope World Services and the Arctic Slope Consulting Group, where he helped coordinate the North Slope village water and sewer construction program. He was President of LCMF, Inc., a design and engineering subsidiary of UIC, the Barrow village corporation. He served on the Board of Directors of UIC and of Eskimo’s Inc., a subsidiary of ASRC.

Mayor Itta is very active in community affairs and public policy. He is a past President of Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska, the U.S. arm of the international organization representing the world’s Inuit (Eskimo) people. He is currently the local government representative for Alaska on the Outer Continental Shelf Policy Committee. He is a past President and current member of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association and a past Commissioner and Vice-Chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, of which he is also a current member. Itta served as President of the North Slope Borough School Board and was Vice-Chairman of the federal government’s subsistence advisory council for northern Alaska.

Mayor Itta trained as an electronics technician at the Griswold Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and in the U.S. Navy.

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