Of ice and oil in Alaska

June 8, 2012, 2:38 PM UTC

FORTUNE – Perched on the northern edge of Alaska, the town of Barrow is under siege. Rapid climate change threatens its physical infrastructure. Multinational oil companies seek to drill in the waters off its coast, jeopardizing the whaling tradition of the native Inupiat Eskimos. And an undersea land-grab among Arctic powers is pushing Barrow to the front lines of an escalating international conflict.

The forces buffeting this remote town of 4,300 make for a fascinating story that’s gotten far too little attention in the lower 48 (blame the American aversion to news from far away), especially considering their significant near-term consequences for the contiguous U.S. In The Eskimo and the Oil Man, magazine writer Bob Reiss wisely focuses on the intersecting narratives of Edward Itta, the Inupiat mayor of the North Slope, and Pete Slaiby, Royal Dutch Shell’s point man in Alaska.

They’re both compelling characters. Itta is torn by the conflicting imperatives of protecting the traditions of his community while dragging it into the 21st century. Slaiby is a driven company man who battles bureaucratic inertia and grassroots resistance at the ends of the earth. Reiss does yeoman’s work pricking his protagonists’ psyches. But the drama that’s meant to animate the narrative — whether or not Shell (RDSA) will get the green light to start drilling on its Arctic leases, following the political backlash after the BP (BP) spill — is already moot. As Jon Birger writes in the current issue of Fortune, Shell will begin work on its first exploratory wells in July.

Slaiby and Itta both appear in Birger’s story, which could serve as an epilogue to Reiss’s book. Frankly, it could also substitute for the book altogether. Given the richness of the subject matter and the quality of Reiss’s reporting, I was disappointed with how frequently the storytelling fell down. Take this moment, from the book’s opening pages, as Itta rides a snowmobile from a whale-hunting encampment back to Barrow for a meeting with Slaiby: “Suddenly Edward felt himself losing control. The Snowcat crashed down on him, pinning him.”

A snowmobile crash! That’s good stuff!  But what happened? It’s entirely unclear from the narrative, which only relates that Itta managed to climb out from under the vehicle, right it, and keep going. This may sound like a quibble, but it’s not an isolated case. Reiss repeatedly elides key details in pivotal scenes. Meanwhile, he lingers on tedious aspects of the permitting process, relating official testimony and letters at confounding length. He further gums things up by throwing in quotes haphazardly and at times nonsensically. Describing a meeting of Shell geologists huddling in Houston to discern whether prehistoric Arctic conditions could have produced oil, for example, he offers up the following unattributed quote: “Hmmmm.”

Reiss’s access is unassailable, as are his shoe-leather bona fides. To get the goods, he took two trips on a Coast Guard icebreaker, traveled to Norway, shadowed lobbyists in Washington, and mingled with U.N. apparatchiks at a Manhattan cocktail party, not to mention untold days on the ground in Alaska. But in recounting what he gathered, Reiss eschews anything but the loosest chronological structure. The result is a jumble that deflates whatever suspense might have developed as the story approaches its ostensible climax, the decision over Shell’s drilling proposal.

The book’s most striking passages detail the havoc that our warming global climate is already wreaking on the Arctic and on its inhabitants’ way of life. In northern Alaska, global warming is not some abstract political hot potato. Trees are sprouting on formerly barren tundra. A wildfire broke out four years ago on the North Slope, where the local language has no word for forest fire. On St. Lawrence Island, in the Bering Sea, Reiss visits natural meat freezers that the Eskimos built into the bluffs centuries ago. Inside one, Reiss sees trickles of water. “It’s melting,” his Eskimo tour guide tells him. “It never used to do that.”

Later in the book, Reiss learns that the U.S. Navy expects the Arctic to be effectively ice-free by mid-to-late century. The implications — commercial, geopolitical, ecological — are staggering. They certainly deserve book-length treatments. Here’s hoping Reiss’s effort is just the first.

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