Offshore Drilling Looms on the Arctic Horizon

December 1, 2009 • High Seas, Theme • Views: 1195

by Reid Magdanz:

Spring in Barrow, Alaska heralds the return of the sun, the slow thawing of the ice-covered sea, and, most importantly for the native Inuit, the arrival of the bowhead whales. As they have done for thousands of years, the whaling crews of Barrow haul their sealskin-covered boats, or umiaqs, to the ice’s edge: It is time for the whale hunt. When a whale appears, the crews race after it, armed with guns and harpoons. If the pursuit is successful, the entire town helps butcher the whale and distribute the meat.

Harry Brower, a whaling captain in Barrow, has been involved in the hunts since the early 1970s. Whaling has been in his family for generations. His grandfather, a Yankee whaler, arrived in Barrow in the late 1800s and established a trading company, and his Inuit ancestors have been whaling in Barrow since time immemorial. “It’s culturally and spiritually significant,” Brower said of the hunt. “The bowhead whale provides food, sustenance, for our communities.”

Two Inuit men take an October seal hunting trip in Kotzebue Sound in Northwest Alaska. (Courtesy Susan Georgette)

But Brower and others are deeply worried about the future of the whale hunt. Recently, interest in offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean has intensified and for good reason: As much as 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas lie north of the Arctic Circle, much of it offshore. The oil industry has poured billions of dollars into exploration in the Canadian Arctic in the past three years and NunaOil, Greenland’s national oil company, expects the number of active offshore licenses in Greenland to double in the next 12 to 18 months. The U.S. government expected about $60 million in revenue from a lease sale held last year in the Chukchi Sea, off the northwest coast of Alaska. Industry bid $2.7 billion.

The Inuit, comprising the indigenous populations of Arctic Canada, Russia, Alaska, and Greenland, have relied on the land and sea to provide food and raw materials for countless generations, and tens of thousands still depend on this natural bounty to fill freezers and wallets. “Hunting and fishing are so ingrained in the Inuit culture that you can’t separate them,” said James Stotts, who grew up in Barrow and chairs the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), which represents approximately 160,000 Inuit across the North. “It’s a spiritual connection to the environment. These are the foods we eat, not only for nutrition but for cultural sustenance.”

The vital role that the land and sea play in their lives make the Inuit averse to anything that could threaten the wildlife and country they use. At the same time, they have seen development before in the form of onshore drilling and mining, and many appreciate the jobs and money it has brought to remote Arctic regions. Work is hard to come by in the North, and even the most mundane goods are exorbitantly expensive. But offshore drilling poses greater risks and promises fewer rewards than onshore development, forcing the Inuit to decide whether the benefits it could provide are worth the risks to their most treasured resource of all, the sea.

A Range of Opinion

The realization that offshore drilling may soon become a reality has sparked debate in Northern communities over whether and how development should be allowed to proceed. Richard Glenn’s mother is from Barrow, but he was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he pulled weeds and delivered newspapers to earn his airfare to Alaska each summer. He has lived in Barrow permanently since he was 20, raised four daughters in the town, and is currently a whaling captain and executive vice president of lands and natural resources for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC). “Offshore drilling is a passionate topic. It’s at our dinner tables, our community halls, and in our boards rooms,” he said.

The debate centers on what is needed to protect the marine ecosystem that the Inuit rely on for subsistence, defined in Alaska as the traditional uses of wild resources for consumption, barter, or the making of crafts. In Canada and Greenland small markets for wild game also provide an important source of income for communities. Given the cultural and economic value of subsistence, it is no surprise that almost all Inuit agree it must be protected.

But opinions differ regarding the amount and type of protection required and whether trade-offs between subsistence and development are acceptable. Some individuals and organizations believe that the grave risks posed by offshore drilling should preclude development. One such organization is the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which represents 11 whaling communities along Alaska’s coast. Brower, the Barrow whaling captain who chairs the commission, worries that offshore industrial activity will disrupt whale migration routes and make hunting them difficult or impossible.

Kathy Frost, a marine mammals ecologist who worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 25 years, recalled a case in which whaling was adversely affected by industrial activity. Noise from a transport ship passing by Wainwright, Alaska, a few years ago scared beluga whales away from shore, preventing hunters from reaching the animals. “Now that’s probably not a big biological effect on the belugas,” Frost said, “but it certainly had a very real effect on the hunters.”

Other Inuit, Glenn of ASRC among them, believe the benefits of oil drilling are often worth the necessary risks and trade-offs. One of his first professional jobs was helping Barrow find its own natural gas source. “The lights are on here, the heat is on in our homes, and will be for many generations because of oil and gas development,” he said. He noted that the sheer size of Alaska – the population density in the north is less than a tenth of a person per square mile – means that subsistence and development can coexist. “I am willing to lay down my special place,” he said. “Rather than go to the podium and complain how oil industry interfered with my caribou hunt, I’ll go hunt somewhere else.” Glenn also sees offshore drilling as practically inevitable. “Whether you’re for it or against it, it’s going to happen. Why don’t you let it happen on your terms to the greatest degree possible?”

Many stand in between the two extremes: cognizant of the benefits drilling would provide but still uneasy about the risks posed to subsistence. Marie Greene grew up in Deering, a remote village of less than 200 people on the northwest coast of Alaska, established as a supply center for nearby mining camps. Today she is the CEO of NANA Regional Corporation and lives in the regional center of Kotzebue, 50 miles north of Deering and not far from the lease areas in the Chukchi Sea. “We support responsible development, but as stewards of the land, our priority needs to be the protection of our land and subsistence way of life,” she said.

Risk and Reward

Resource development is inherently risky, and drilling for oil in ice-choked Arctic seas is especially so. Moving pack ice and temperatures plummeting well below zero degrees Fahrenheit make operating drill rigs difficult and dangerous. Despite assurances from the oil industry that they will take appropriate safety measures, many Inuit remain apprehensive: They cannot afford to lose the sea. “Our ice is an extension of our land. It’s our hunting grounds for the mammals we seek from the oceans,” explained Greene.

The predominant concern is of an oil spill in ice-covered waters, which could decimate marine life; Prince William Sound, site of the infamous Exxon Valdez spill, is still far from recovery 20 years after the catastrophe. Edward Itta, Mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, has been active in the development debate since well before the Exxon Valdez ran aground. In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on August 20, 2009, he emphasized the difficulty of countering oil spills in the Arctic. “We know, as people living there, that the Arctic is uniquely unforgiving. Broken ice conditions at various times of the year make any type of spill response virtually impossible,” he said. “[This] means spill prevention is doubly, maybe triply, important.”

The possibility that noise from supply ships and drill rigs will harm marine mammals is also of concern. In an effort to better understand the activity patterns of these animals, Frost, the marine mammals ecologist, has been tracking seals and beluga whales in Northwest Alaska for the past five years. Results so far have shown that both mammals use the leased areas in the Chukchi Sea. “It tells us there is an area of overlap, and if you are doing seismic activities, for example, you need to think about the presence of marine mammals,” she said. But Frost believes that appropriate mitigation measures, such as closing certain areas to industrial activity, can minimize the negative effects of noise.

The strength and enforcement of environmental regulations is also a cause of worry. “There basically are no standards,” said Stotts, the ICC chair. ÒIn our opinion, standards are being developed by the industry as the processes are ongoing.” Itta too called for tough oversight. “Responsible resource development in an increasingly fragile polar world will require strong regulatory protections,” he testified.

While the risks associated with offshore drilling give the Inuit great pause, the benefits that development could provide are tantalizing. Past and present development provides examples of the benefits that can accrue to local people. On Alaska’s North Slope, recognition of these benefits has led the local government to work hand-in-hand with industry over the past 30 years in support of onshore oil development. Tax revenue from the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field provides money to fund the borough government, schools, volunteer fire departments, and clinics, as well as projects that help preserve Inuit culture.

In Canada, oil companies must make commitments to invest in towns and villages near the lease area in order to get a federal permit to operate, said Kerry Newkirk, the director of oil and gas management for Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Companies involved in exploration and development provide training and jobs to local people in areas such as marine mammal observation, pipefitting, and pipeline development. The town of Inuvik in Canada also receives more direct benefits; like Barrow, it is powered by natural gas from a nearby field.

In Greenland, offshore development carries an even greater promise: sovereignty. Mead Treadwell is originally from Connecticut, but upon his first visit to Alaska as a college freshman, he decided that there was nowhere he would rather live. Today, he chairs the US Arctic Research Commission (USARC), responsible for advising the government on Arctic research goals. “The Danes have told Greenland that if it can find enough of a way to support itself, it can be an independent country,” he said. “The entire independence of the region depends on oil and gas potential.”

Inuit leaders generally cite concerns about environmental impacts as reason for opposing offshore oil drilling. Another critical, but less well understood, difference between onshore and offshore development is the way benefits would flow to local people, at least in Alaska. Prudhoe Bay, the location of most oil production in the state, is on state-owned land within the North Slope Borough, allowing the borough government to collect enormous sums of money from direct taxes on oil production. Other rural Alaska governments levy the same types of direct taxes on mines.

In contrast, offshore development in the Chukchi Sea would occur in state or federal waters, well out of the jurisdiction of local governments, and tax revenue would instead flow to Juneau or Washington. The only direct benefit to the local people would be new employment opportunities, crumbs compared to the direct tax revenues. The lack of certainty regarding benefits has made Inuit leaders more wary of development and insistent that local people get a share of the resource wealth. “We hope we’d be able to benefit from the gas that’s coming out of the ground, from the ocean,” said NANA’s Greene. “It’s time that we too start benefiting from the resources that are taken out of our backyard.”

Looking Ahead

Oil development is a long process even if everything goes smoothly. Given that offshore development is just getting under way in the Arctic, it will be some time before oil is flowing from beneath the ice. James Craig, a geologist for the U.S. Minerals Management Service, said the only offshore site currently operating in Alaska took 17 years to get up and running, and when the next site begins operation it will have been at least 24 years.

Dennis Thurston, author of an Oil and Gas Assessment being done by a working group of the Arctic Council, said he doesn’t see oil flowing from the Chukchi or Canadian Arctic for 10 to 15 years, even in a best-case scenario. Greenland is very active in its pursuit of oil and gas but is considerably less explored than Alaska or Canada, making oil extraction in the near future unlikely.

From the perspective of Inuit leaders, this is perfectly fine. Greene, who has experience with past development, said a key lesson she has learned is the importance of taking things slowly, giving leadership the chance to hear and address the concerns of local people. Also, both Greene and Itta want to see more research, communication and planning before offering support for offshore development.

In his Senate testimony, Itta said that acquiring more baseline data is a priority. “We have to know the wildlife populations and the habitat before any of these activities get under way. If we don’t, we won’t be able to measure or understand the impacts going forward,” he said. Treadwell said that the USARC recognizes the importance of further research and has been pushing for much better Arctic Ocean baseline science and a more aggressive oil spill research program in order to be prepared for development.

Local consultation is also vital. Shell Oil, which bought a majority of the leases in the Chukchi Sea, has made a good start, according to Greene, who would like to see communication become even more frequent should development draw closer. “They’ve probably made five, six, different trips up here,” she said, referring to Shell representatives. “They’ve been getting on the radio, they’ve held a number of meetings with the borough assembly and NANA.”

If drilling actually gets underway, Inuit leaders want to see strong protections for the marine life on which they depend. In his testimony, Itta argued for zero waste discharge from ships and drill rigs, a requirement that independent, state-licensed pilots operate vessels that could pose a threat to the environment if damaged, a robust spill response plan, and an increased Coast Guard presence. “Seventy billion dollars might be there in resource wealth,” he said. “Seventy billion dollars. Such vast upside potential carries with it, I believe, a responsibility to use world-class standards and safeguards that minimize any potential costs and damage to the Arctic environment and subsistence way of life.”

“The Fate of the Arctic is our Fate”

The Inuit have survived for millennia in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. They lived by following game over snow-covered mountain ranges and across shifting pack ice. The land supplied everything they needed to survive. For nearly 10,000 years, relatively little changed for the people of the North. The Inuit, like people across the globe, survived by adapting to anything nature threw at them.

But today, it is the modern world, not Mother Nature, forcing the Inuit to adapt more rapidly than ever before. Its pressures and unquenchable demand for resources pose the gravest threat yet to their cherished subsistence way of life. While the Inuit recognize the need for economic development in the 21st century, no amount of money could possibly compensate for the loss of their land or sea.

Itta and Greene both recognize the stakes. “We can’t just relocate and move somewhere,” testified Itta. “We live here. Subsistence is what identifies us as a people.”

“We’re going to do it right,” said Greene. “We have to. Our way of life is too important. It is sacred to us. And we have no intentions of compromising that in any way.”

Reid Magdanz ’12 is an Environmental Studies major in Timothy Dwight college. He grew up in Kotzebue, Alaska. Contact him at

Tags: , , , ,

Comments are closed.