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Originally published Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'The Eskimo and the Oil Man': the high-stakes race for offshore Arctic oil

In "The Eskimo and the Oil Man," author and former Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Reiss documents the high stakes for drilling in offshore Arctic waters — for the oil industry, for the Inupiat Eskimos and for the world, as the burning of fossil fuel impacts climate change.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Eskimo and the Oil Man: The Battle at the Top of the World for America's Future'

by Bob Reiss

Business Plus, 305 pp., $27.99

Shell Oil has invested $4.5 billion in a bid to explore undersea areas off Alaska's North Slope, where corporate executives hope to find huge new deposits of oil and natural gas.

These offshore waters — increasingly free of summer ice as the climate warms — also are of vital importance to the Inupiat Eskimos who hunt the bowhead whales as they migrate past their villages set along the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Though the Inupiat have reaped enormous benefits from onshore development, there has been tremendous concern — and debate within their communities — about the prospects of offshore oil development and possible impacts on the whales.

"We were here before oil. We will be here after. We're the ones that will bear the brunt," declares Edward Itta, an Inupiat whaler and the former mayor of Barrow, Alaska, in "The Eskimo and the Oil Man" by Bob Reiss.

The book offers an intriguing account of Shell's push to open the offshore Arctic to oil development, much of it told through a key relationship; that of Itta and Pete Slaiby, a Shell veteran of more than 25 years of global oil exploration and development who serves as the corporation point man in Alaska.

For Shell, a big hurdle has been preparing a credible response plan to an oil spill in remote Arctic waters. Scrutiny of that plan intensified after BP's disastrous 2010 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

The book also tackles broader issues that surround Arctic oil development, examining the federal offshore leasing system that Reiss contrasts unfavorably with what he concludes is a stronger, less bureaucratic system that he encountered on a trip to Norway. Reiss also explores the warming of the Arctic that is opening new shipping lanes, prompting a major push by Arctic nations to claim new ocean-bottom territory and putting new stress on the Arctic environment and its people.

But Reiss, who describes himself in the book as a "believer in global warming theory," doesn't spend much time examining the causes of global warming. Instead, early in the book, in a brief passage, he writes that "While some U.S. scientists still argued in 2010 over why the earth was heating up, and whether human influence or natural factors were responsible, no one denied that temperatures were higher."

As Reiss rushes past the why of global warming, he also misses the opportunity to examine a significant part of the environmental debate over offshore development in the Arctic. In a 2010 study, the National Research Council found "a strong credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research" that the Earth is warming, and that these changes are caused "largely by human activities."

These human activities include fossil-fuel combustion. So if the Arctic offshore areas are found to contain new deposits of oil, then these fields would help sustain the fossil-fuel consumption that is both putting the Inupiat lifestyle at risk and contributing to broader climate change across the globe.

Reiss, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, notes that offshore oil development in the Arctic will happen with or without U.S. participation. He urges America to not lose out in the race for riches in the 21st century Arctic.

"America needs to think of itself as an Arctic nation," Reiss writes. "Only then will it take advantage of the opportunities and prepare for the consequences of ice melt in the north."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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