ARCTIC DRILLING:

He wrote the book on Alaska conflicts, but Shell will write the ending

This summer, as Royal Dutch Shell PLC gears up to begin oil exploration in the Alaska Arctic, New York-based author Bob Reiss will be closely watching to see whether the story he told in his book "The Eskimo and the Oil Man" ends the way he thought it would.

In 2010 and 2011, Reiss conducted thousands of interviews with government officials, industry executives, scientists, environmentalists and Native residents involved in the contentious battle over energy development off Alaska's northern shores.

Reiss' book describes the conflict through the eyes of two key players who ultimately become unlikely allies in Arctic development: former North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta and Shell executive Pete Slaiby.

Released in May, the book includes intimate information about the life of each man. Itta shared painful details about coming of age while being pulled between the Inupiat Eskimo culture and the non-Eskimo world. The more private Slaiby did give Reiss access to family, longtime friends and inside company debates.

As Reiss researched the book, he expected the tale to end last summer with a graphic description of Shell actively exploring for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

"In 2010, my guess was that in 2011 they would get to drill," he said in an interview. "And the way the book was proposed to end was with the drill bit going down and the question of whether this is progress or the opening of Pandora's box."

When drilling was subsequently delayed, he shifted focus, instead examining the personal conflicts Itta faced in struggling to protect the Inupiats' indigenous lifestyle while meeting the economic development needs of his community. Itta's term as mayor ended in 2011.

"This is a person who had power and influence over the situation who still feels the pressure," Reiss explained. "Now he's moved to a place in his life where he gets to see whether he did or did not have the kind of influence that he wanted to have.

"Historically speaking, this one year encapsulates a whole set of choices that the whole country continues to face," he added.

The book also chronicled Reiss' own intellectual journey from being "an environmentalist who gives environmentalist speeches" to supporting limited exploratory drilling in the Arctic.

"My suspicion was that I would come out of this thinking that the oil companies were the bad guys," he said. "But you have to go into things objectively. And I was surprised by the way I came out. ... I do not feel like we're ready to do production drilling. But I do feel that limited exploratory drilling should proceed -- which my [environmental] friends are irritated with, to say the least."

'The Coming Storm'

Ironically, it was climate change that first drew Reiss to Alaska. At a Fourth of July party in Massachusetts, Reiss heard about the increased summer ice melt in Canada's Northwest Passage and the coming conflicts over access to Arctic shipping lanes.

"I went up there initially because I heard that the place was opening up geopolitically, strategically, economically and because the environment was changing," he recalled. "So yes, you could say I went up there because of all the different stories related to the Arctic warming."

In 2001, he wrote "The Coming Storm," a book that chronicles the stories of communities around the world affected by climate change, scientists researching the phenomenon and politicians battling over whether or how to respond to warming. The book concluded that global warming is caused by human-produced carbon dioxide emissions.

For this book, however, Reiss carefully avoided the blame game on climate. "I believe that humans influence climate change, but if you want to believe it's sunspots or some other theory, it still means that the Arctic is melting twice as fast as the rest of the planet and you have to deal with it," he said.

In early 2010, Reiss was assigned to write a Parade Magazine article about Itta, whom he described in the story as "one of America's most powerful mayors -- but you've probably never heard of him."

In researching the piece, Itta invited Reiss to sit in on a meeting he was having with Slaiby and Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Shell officials had requested the meeting to assure Itta that their company would not allow a similar spill in the Arctic.

In preparation for the session, Itta watched the television coverage of the Gulf oil disaster, riveted by footage of oil company workers and government officials futilely scrambling to stop the flow of black crude into the warm Gulf waters.

As Reiss described in the opening of his book: "What [Itta] saw on the screen made his heart freeze up. What if it happens here, he thought?"

At the meeting, Slaiby and Odum "didn't seem too happy to see me when they walked into the room," Reiss recalled in an interview. "And Edward said, 'This guy is a reporter for Parade, he's going to sit in.'"

The discussion that day crystallized Reiss' growing interest in writing a book about the changes in the Arctic. "Sitting in that room 2 feet from Edward and 2 feet from Pete, it was clear that I had found the fulcrum. I found the story" for his book, Reiss recalled.

"If these two parties would trust me enough to give me access for a year to the story of their interaction, and then the wider story of what happens with Shell, it would be a way of getting at the opening of the whole Arctic, how we're dealing with it, whether we're dealing with it wisely and what are the consequences."

Once the Parade article on Itta came out in July 2010, both men agreed to work with Reiss. "I guess they felt it was fair," he said.

Endless regulatory season

While examining Shell's efforts to begin drilling in the Arctic, Reiss grew increasingly irritated by the lengthy federal regulatory process that the company had to follow.

"I was disgusted by the complexity. I like all the environmental laws. They were all passed for good reasons," he said. "But these laws were passed piecemeal by Congress over the years without understanding Arctic conditions. There's no requirement in these laws for federal agencies to work together. Now that's a no-brainer."

Reiss argued that the constant regulatory delays and lawsuits make it nearly impossible to drill in the region. He took aim at the incessant public hearings, strenuous agency vetting system and judicial reviews that delay every final decision on drilling.

"In the Arctic, you have a three-month drilling season," he noted. But the government oversight "becomes this endless do-over process. That, to me, is ridiculous. If you don't want to drill, don't sell leases. But if you sell leases, then make it a process that works."

However, Reiss also favors requiring all oil companies to adopt the same precautions and concessions that Shell has voluntarily agreed to in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

"Shell's made some concessions that are not mandated by the federal government," he said. "I think that all of the concessions should be part of the permit conditions for all oil companies. Staying away during whaling weeks. Hauling away drill cuttings. Allow inspectors on board 24 hours a day. These are not little things. They were hard-fought things. They should be conditions for other oil companies.

"It shouldn't be that Shell opens things up and then other companies with less stringent rules get in there on their coattails," he added.

In his more reflective moments, Reiss also said he gained a deep appreciation for the beauty of the remote Arctic, particularly during the long, dark winters. Reiss first came to Barrow as just one of a flock of summertime climate change reporters. All that changed when he spent February in Barrow.

"I had really had a good time there in the winter," he recalled. "There's something about the ice that was magnificent and alive. You read intellectually that the Eskimos have 100 words for ice. But you just have to be there for a few days to understand the incredible logic of that."

He added, "It really acted like a living thing. It had so many incarnations and ways of expressing itself. It could act like plate tectonics and form these fast-moving mountains. It could act like an animal and come across the road. It just was magnificent. And I also like the snow. The place is so dry that it acted like sand. ... And the light, or the lack of it. I just love the hell out of it in the winter."