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Photos: Oil, infrastructure and promises on Alaska's North Slope

A young Barrow resident peeks out from their home. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
An informational sign in a Barrow bus. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Participants in the Arctic Tour experience a summer snowstorm while on the tundra in Barrow. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The whale bone sculpture in Barrow's Browerville neighborhood frames a ship. Alaska's arctic has seen a marked increase of ship traffic this season. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A permafrost freezer in Barrow. The permanently frozen ground is a challenge for house and road constructors, but helpful for preserving meat. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A barge loading material in Barrow. The most northern city in the U.S. doesn't have any deep water port. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The South Barrow #1 well, the first test well drilled in Alaska's north slope. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A gallon of orange juice in Barrow is $17.65. Food prices are even higher in smaller Alaskan arctic communities. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Shell Oil's helicopter hangar, at right, dwarfs the U.S. Coast Guard's rented hangar at the Barrow Airport. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The entirety of the U.S. Coast Guard's terrestrial operations in Barrow consist of this small rented hangar at the Barrow airport. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The communications equipment at the U.S. Coast Guard's Barrow headquarters. The Coast Guard is using a rented hangar this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and is the site of increased activity and attention. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and is the site of increased activity and attention. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and is the site of increased activity and attention. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kids play in Wainwright, the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea. The village has been the site of increased activity and attention this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and has been the site of increased activity and attention this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and has been the site of increased activity and attention this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Biologists disembark from an Olgoonik Corp. transport vessel on Aug. 30, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Shell Oil's Chukchi Sea oil response facility, located in Wainwright. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Welcome to the village of Wainwright, where there's a new gravel pad around every corner. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and has been the site of increased activity and attention this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Drugs are a huge problem in rural Alaska, including the village of Wainwright, pictured here. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A cemetery in Wainwright. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kids play on a gravel pile in Wainwright. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Loren Holmes

Alaska's Native population remains far different from most of America. The skins of dead animals still hang outside many a house. An urban environmentalist would be horrified. But inside those houses are people who want much of what everyone in the country wants -- a better life, a comfortable life, a life free from worries about how you feed yourself tomorrow.

It takes money to create such a life. And oil brings money, along with promises of more money.

It also brings great risks.

Former North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta talked about the promises and risks at the end of the Arctic Imperative Summit in Anchorage and Girdwood in late August.

He said that as mayor, he thought it his job to negotiate with the oil companies to get the best deal for the region as offshore oil exploration moved toward possible development. As the former mayor, he added, he's not so sure he's going to stick with that position. He doesn't like the threat oil poses to the animals he hunts.

As Alaska Archdeacon Hudson Stuck observed about life in the Arctic more than 100 years ago, everything is all right as long as it is all right.

Most of the people who live on Alaska's North Slope seem to accept that. Some number of those who live outside Alaska do not. They see only the risks. That is an easy thing to see for someone living comfortable in a city anywhere. Oil spills are ugly and emotionally painful disasters, and anywhere there is oil, there is the chance of oil being spilled.

“By opening the Arctic to offshore oil drilling, President Obama has made a monumental mistake that puts human life, wildlife and the environment in terrible danger," Rebecca Noblin, the Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release Thursday. "The harsh and frozen conditions of the Arctic make drilling risky, and an oil spill would be impossible to clean up."

The latter claims are arguably true. Most of the people in Wainwright seem to understand that, too.

But what, they wonder, are the economic alternatives to drilling?

--Craig Medred