Sometimes city councils pass laws, and sometimes they pass resolutions. If you watched Schoolhouse Rock as a kid, then you probably know what a law is. Resolutions are more nebulous. Some have practical implications for how a city runs and others are grandiose but otherwise toothless gestures. The former include declarations like sanctuary cities and carbon neutrality. Far from grandstanding, those pronouncements impact how the police operates—like not asking for immigration status at a routine traffic stop—and what kind of energy powers a city.
And while some political scientists believe mayors should run the world, the latter resolutions are totally outside the purview of what a city can actually accomplish. Witness the rash of “nuclear-free zones” that popped up coast to coast in the 1980s, as if cities were really the ones calling the shots during the Cold War.
The latter category is where Monday’s Seattle City Council resolution pledging not to purchase goods or services from companies that obtain leases to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge falls. The U.S. Department of the Interior is scheduled to start selling those leases in the coming months, although recent investigations suggest there may be far less oil than anticipated under the tundra.
I am waiting to hear back from Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s office—he sponsored the resolution—as to whether we actually do business with any such companies. But given how the sHell No! campaign chased Royal Dutch Shell out of the port four years ago when it planned to base its Arctic offshore drilling operation here, I suspect the answer is no.
The Arctic refuge resolution may be completely symbolic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right. I traveled there last year to report on the prospect of oil drilling together with British filmmaker Max Baring, who produced “Eskimo Inc.,” a film that won best short documentary at the first-ever Arctic Film Festival last week in Svalbard, Norway.
ANWR, as it's known for short, is a wildlife refuge in the remote Alaskan tundra between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. Roughly the size of South Carolina, it’s a wilderness landscape that defies the imagination. The refuge is home to the main calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd, the longest land migration of any mammal on Earth. It also provides summer nesting grounds for birds that travel from as far away as Uruguay. And it’s a popular hangout for polar bears, so much so that we had to carry bear spray and look both ways before stepping outside of any building.
There is already oil drilling across the Arctic Slope, as the northern tier of Alaska is known. A 1968 oil discovery in Prudhoe Bay changed Alaska’s history from backwoods backwater to a rich state as dependent on petroleum revenue as any Persian Gulf dictatorship. ANWR was set aside as a wildlife refuge in 1960 and whether or not to drill for oil in ANWR has been an on-again, off-again congressional argument since 1980. Opening ANWR to drilling was part of the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cut package and reopened the debate about who ANWR belongs to: Is it really the public land of everyone in the U.S., as much a national treasure as Mt. Rainier and the Olympics, or the traditional land of Native Alaskans who should be able to decide its fate?
ANWR may seem impossibly far away, but here in Seattle we’re a lot closer than anywhere else in the Lower 48. We’re the hometown of Alaska Airlines, after all, and on the same day last October I ate breakfast in Seattle, then watched the sun set over the Arctic Ocean in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), the northernmost U.S. city. From there, a ten-seater prop plane took us east to Kaktovik, one of two villages inside the vast refuge. At 1,700 miles from Seattle as the crow flies, we’re closer to Kakotivk than we are to Washington, D.C., where the refuge’s fate will be decided.
There’s no denying the benefit that oil money brings. Tiny Kaktovik, population 250, had a pimped out school with a heated swimming pool nicer than you’d find in cities 100 times its size. One of the village leaders reminded us that elders remember living through periods of starvation. The reliable income stream from taxing oil development has allowed the nearly 10,000 Inupiaq, a Native Alaskan group that has lived on the Arctic Slope for centuries, to supplement subsistence hunting and fishing with imported food and other luxuries. In Utqiagvik, I met with Inupiaq whalers and attended a church service to bless the fall whale hunt, the first to follow a landmark decision by the International Whaling Commission to loosen restrictions on indigenous whaling. I have deep respect for the Inupiaq’s commitment to living off the land and sea.
While reporting on the ANWR controversy, I had to check my opinions at the door. But nearly a year later, I’m willing to lay my cards on the table. As “Eskimo Inc” illustrates, the story of how the Inupiaq transitioned from a purely subsistence lifestyle to running the $2.5-billion annual revenue Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) in just a few generations is remarkable. You can see it as the purest success story of U.S. capitalism, or as capitalism run amok. Because their addiction to oil revenues is fueling climate change and destroying the very homeland they cherish.
Reporting on indigenous communities as a Western visitor to their land is a fraught exercise, but I believe it’s always fair to hold the powerful accountable. In this case, the Inupiaq leaders—the whaling captains who double as the ASRC corporate brass—are powerful. They have allies in Congress, Alaska state politics, and the oil industry. They have poured a lot of money into a PR campaign to convince the public that the Inupiaq speak with a single voice that is pro-oil development—our reporting on the ground proved that was not the case. And in the process, they are fucking over their neighbors the Gwich’in, a tribe that lives at the other end of the refuge and relies on the caribou in the same way that the Inupiaq rely on the bowhead whale.
On Sunday, I read another Washington-based writer’s account of the refuge, Christopher Solomon’s travelogue-cum-epilogue of rafting the refuge before the drilling starts. It took me back to my own brief but bracing time on the edge of the wilderness. On Monday, I saw the ANWR resolution slotted in among 35 other agenda items covering more pressing day-to-day Seattle concerns like fixing our hotel worker protection law.
I still don’t think Seattle City Council standing up against ANWR drilling is going to move the needle anymore than similar resolutions by the city councils of Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, or West Hollywood. (Barclay’s denying financing to oil drilling projects, well that could actually do something.) But here where we hosted the Alaska-Pacific-Yukon Exposition, where today Alaskans outpace any other transplant, ANWR just feels a little closer to home.