Page last updated at 10:26 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 11:26 UK

New battle over Arctic oil plans

By David Shukman
Environment correspondent, BBC News, Alaska

Oil pipeline
Oil already brings in a fair degree of wealth to Alaska

The grey waters of the Arctic Ocean are the scene for a new battle over plans for a huge expansion in the drilling of oil and gas far beyond the Alaskan shore.

With the Arctic ice-cap melting far beyond average for the second year running - and with US petrol prices above $4 per gallon - there's growing pressure to exploit the reserves beneath the seabed.

The governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, in her speech accepting her nomination as Republican Party candidate for vice-president last week, said the country needed to produce more of its own oil and gas."

This ocean has given us our food chain for us to live, to survive
Eugene Brower, whaling captain

"Take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska - we've got plenty of both," she said.

Executives from the oil giant Shell, whose multi-billion dollar plans have been held up by court actions brought by environmental campaigners, are now optimistic that public opinion is shifting their way.

Peter Slaiby, head of Shell's Alaska operations, said: "I think the American people are on our side, and I think what's been the tipping point has been the four dollar gallon - it's really created a sea-change of thought on this."

Oil on waters

In answer to fears of a major oil spill in the Arctic waters, Shell and other oil companies assert that they are environmentally responsible and ready with the latest clean-up technology.

But among those worried is Professor Rick Steiner of the University of Alaska, who concludes: "It's far too risky to do these oil developments offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska.

David Shukman takes a flight over US Arctic oilfield

"The oil industry says they can do it safely.

"But there have been several major blowouts offshore on rigs that have exceeded the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill [the oil tanker that ruptured off the southern coast of Alaska 20 years ago]."

Opposition also comes from many native Alaskans, including the Inupiat people here in Barrow.

Although this community has benefited from oil revenues, for centuries the way of life has revolved around hunting the great creatures of the Arctic out at sea and on the winter ice, and the fear is that the waters may become contaminated.

Human concerns

Eugene Brower, a whaling captain and prominent local figure, believes that drilling offshore could threaten his culture.

"Oil ain't everything. What about the human beings that live up here, up and down the coastline? What about our way of life?.

Polar bear on shore

"We may be few thousand in number, but this ocean has given us our food chain for us to live, to survive.

"And I'm not about to give that up just for the sake of the big oil giants to come out here and say they can do whatever they want to do."

So on these distant shores a major struggle is looming - and it's become highly political.

While Sarah Palin wants to see an oil and gas boom offshore, Barack Obama does not.

So for the tiny but determined community here, the November election is about more than choosing a president.

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