The creation myth about public-spirited citizens selflessly jump-starting the oil industry in Alaska played out across decades. By the 1990s, Alaska Natives were in the game.
From February 2, 1990


ANWR and oil’s Native partners


I mentioned last week that the Daily News was running its series on the history of how the oil industry first came to Alaska because citizens make better decisions based on facts than fantasies.

Careful readers will have spotted one obvious implication already. Parallels between the deal that brought the Kenai National Moose Range into production and current proposals to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are just too broad to miss.

In the 1950s, the critters in question were moose. Protecting moose was a key priority of conservationists and national politicans in the 1950s, and proposals about opening the range for oil exploration were at the center of continual political debates.

Today, of course, we argue about caribou instead. The fate of Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates across and calves on the coastal plain at ANWR, is at the center of debate about whether to let drilling take place up there.

In the 50s, the oil industry looked for allies and picked a locally powerful group that called itself the Spit and Argue Club. As David Postman's series has shown, Richfield Oil Co. selected some of Anchorage's most influential men to become secret lease partners, and those men added their weight to the political argument over opening the moose range.

In today's debate, the industry has sought allies among Alaska Native corporations. In looking for partners on the North Slope, the industry enlisted village and regional Native interests, and obtained the same kind of assistance. The Native firms have added their voices and political clout to industry lobbying for the right to drill in ANWR.

And, as in the 1950s, secrecy has played a role in the partnerships and in efforts to open wildlife lands.

The partnership between Richfield and the Spit and Argue Club retains some of its secrets to this day. Not many people in Anchorage or the federal government knew at the time that the Alaskans lobbying for moose range production had made deals with the would-be drillers that stood to make them millions.

Key components of Native corporation involvement in proposed ANWR deals were crafted in secret, as well. Assistant Secretary of Interior Bill Horn held closed-door, hotel room meetings with Native bidders to help them select land under surprisingly generous terms.

These points of comparison should not be stretched to breaking, of course. The moose range deal and ANWR issues are in many ways vastly different subjects; the relationship between them is one of outlines and patterns, at best. Lessons learned from studying Richfield's methods on the Kenai do no more than suggest nuggets for consideration as we ponder ANWR policy.

Indeed, a strong argument can be made that the right thing to do in each is lease land and produce oil. The Swanson River field that the Richfield deal produced was a key ingredient in winning statehood and may have been the impetus for subsequent discoveries that have paid off richly for the state treasury.

ANWR holds far greater economic promise. Prospects are so good one prominent geologist describes the industry reaction as "lust."

But one lesson of the Swanson River saga remains applicable today, and it is simply this: oil development is driven by self-interest. It may marry itself to local figures and clothe itself in concerns about local jobs, but the basis of the transaction is always defined by profit.

In the 1950s, Alaskans had a good explanation for their naive approach to the oil industry. After all, none of them had ever been involved with it before.

We don't have that excuse any more.

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