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Alaska: Big Oil and the Inupiat-Americans


On August 2 of this year, asserting a symbolic claim to almost half of the Arctic Basin, a Russian submarine with two parliamentarians on board planted a corrosion-resistant titanium flag more than two miles down directly under the North Pole. In its international implications, the flag-planting anticipated a second epochal event when, on August 21, it was officially announced that the Northwest Passage, emerging at last from millennia of ice, was navigable and open to commercial shipping, removing as many as five thousand miles from long world voyages by way of the Panama Canal. A week later, on August 28, came the latest reports of a scarily accelerating loss of Arctic sea ice attributed by most scientists to global warming, a loss that on September 5 would be confirmed as the greatest on record.

All of these circumstances, of course, bore directly on the imminent development of the Arctic sea floor as a lucrative new field for the industrial extraction of the fossil fuels whose carbon emissions were the principal component of the greenhouses gases that are the primary cause of Arctic warming in the first place. As in Iraq, what was driving all this activity, for better or worse, was the region’s mineral resources, and as in Iraq, the one clear beneficiary of this earth disaster was the international energy industry, a.k.a. Big Oil. Though present estimates may be inflated and not all of the deposits economically accessible, it is thought that these undersea deposits might suffice to fuel the world for a few years, after which this last clean wilderness will be fatally filthied and contaminated and lost forever to mankind.

The sudden media attention given to the melting of the ice and the plight of Arctic animals was obliging the backward Bush administration and even a few enlightened corporations to face the dire threat of global warming. In a phone conversation on September 18, the Inupiat Eskimo hunter Robert Thompson told me that a BBC film crew, National Geographic, and other organizations were descending on his small coastal village of Kaktovik on Barter Island, just off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge not far from the western end of the Northwest Passage, and no doubt this was also true in other localities around the Arctic rim. But for all the flurry, the interests and well-being of the indigenous people most affected had scarcely been mentioned, far less taken into account; the Inupiat (the “Real People”) were quite aware that the media would pay much more attention to the vanishing polar bear than to the native people of the Arctic coasts, who were at risk of being pushed right off the map.

Robert Thompson, an Inupiat-Athabaskan Indian who has become a well-informed environmental spokesman for native Alaskans, is also a member of a whaling crew and carver of whale baleen, the long translucent blades fringed with hair to filter plankton from the sea that are found in the vast mouths of whales such as the bowhead. Thompson described how the retreat of the ice had already affected the hunting. Like most coastal Inupiat villages, Kaktovik had been allotted a quota of three bowhead whales in an annual noncommercial hunt, a traditional event authorized by the International Whaling Commission. Even five years ago, when I first met Thompson in the Arctic refuge, he was already worried by the growing threat of offshore oil activity, fearing that it might dislocate the whales’ migration paths: like the caribou of the Gwich’in Athabascans that calve and summer in the refuge, the whale is a sacred animal and cultural symbol of the hardy, industrious Inupiat, whose ancient subsistence culture has always depended upon a wild harvest.

In recent years in the early autumn when the bowheads pass in westward migration on their way to the Bering Strait, the Beaufort Sea remained largely free of ice, which was forming much later and much farther off the coast than at any time in memory, putting the small whale boats at serious risk in the rough open water exposed to winds. In the spring, the floating pack ice, thinner every winter, could no longer be trusted as a platform for seal-hunting, not only for man but for the ice-dependent polar bears, which rarely hunt on land.

When the energy industry’s twenty-seven-year campaign to drill the refuge coastal plain was forestalled by the Republican loss of Congress in 2006, the Inupiat and the Gwich’in who had most to lose were among those Americans most relieved that Big Oil’s unrelenting pursuit of fossil fuels into the heart of America’s most pristine and magnificent wildlife sanctuary had at least been slowed. But as it turns out, the industry was less interested in the refuge as a marginal oil and gas field than as a shore base for a vast drilling operation in the oil-bearing strata not far off the coast, with even more ominous implications for the native people.1

Faithfully supported by the Bush administration, corporations like Shell Oil were expediting plans to prospect and develop Alaska’s continental shelf, littering the Beaufort Sea with drilling ships and wells, supply ships and barges, airplane and helicopter racket, blasted-out harbors, ice-fortified steel piers, and hundreds of miles of pipe—not only an immense increase in contamination and disturbance but an incalculably risky project that threatened to overwhelm the adaptive capacity of the indigenous sea hunters and an entire precious ecosystem already seriously under stress from Arctic warming.2

Environmentalists are quite aware that despite society’s desperate need for clean energies, carbon fuels will drive the world economy for years to come, and political pressures for ocean drilling may be insurmountable. But the risks of ecological disaster from irreparable accidents such as oil spills in Arctic seas are truly enormous, which is why critics feel so strongly that the oil industry’s ambitions are premature at best and at worst reckless. In addition to severe operating and maintenance difficulties in fierce Arctic conditions—never satisfactorily tamed even on land—any offshore drilling operation would have to deal with freezing ocean storms and shifting ice and four bitter months of winter darkness.

When one considers the more than four thousand spills—over one a day—recorded by the oil industry in its land operations in the last decade, and keeping in mind that offshore hazards are far greater, the inevitable accidents seem certain to accumulate into an ongoing and permanent calamity. A black effluvia of crude petroleum and drilling mud and chemical pollutants would spread inshore, suffocating plankton and invertebrates and bottom-dwelling fish and poisoning great stretches of Arctic coast with a viscous excrescence. The same toxic mixture will blacken the drifting ice, fouling the pristine habitat of Arctic birds, the Pacific walrus, four species of seals, and the beleaguered polar bear, while contaminating the migratory corridors of the white beluga and endangered bowhead whales—all this defilement made much worse by the grim fact that no technology has ever been developed for cleaning up spilled oil in icy waters. Even in spills in temperate waters, such as the Exxon Valdez disaster, only an average of less than 15 percent is ever removed.

An immediate threat to Inupiat culture is the disruption of animal habitats and whale migrations caused by seismic testing, in which arrays of powerful airguns shoot sound waves through the sea floor in search of deep rock formations that might hold gas or oil. “The underwater noise produced by seismic airguns…is among the most intense sounds ever generated by humankind…. The potential harm is enormous,” according to Dr. Christopher W. Clark, a marine biologist and undersea acoustics specialist at Cornell.

Very short bursts of very high energy noise are exploded within the ocean and injected into the earth. Those explosions are repeated over and over again, twenty-four hours a day, for days on end…going off every 9–12 seconds. They represent the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment I can imagine short of naval warfare.3

Seismic testing has been shown to cause significant mortality in fish eggs and larvae, and while permanent harm to adult animals has not been researched, it can scarcely be doubted that physical and neurological damage will result. Yet seismic prospecting (minimally monitored for the bowhead whale, an officially recognized endangered species) is still permitted before leases for ocean drilling are issued, and the leases stipulate no protection of wild creatures against loss of habitat or other harm that might impair their chances of survival.

Even without disruptions such as seismic testing, the rapid withdrawal of the ice is truly ominous for Arctic wildlife, since the melting edges of the ice pack are where life proliferates in the twenty-four-hour light of spring and summer. The profusion of phytoplankton and sea algae attracts fish and birds and also the bowhead, which consumes plankton; the beluga feeds along the ice edge on the small Arctic cod. Of the four seal species, the bearded and ringed seals are entirely ice-dependent, and the preferred habitat of the Pacific walrus, too, is drifting ice, which carries it over the rich mollusk beds from which it feeds. Warming has already set in motion an ecological chain reaction as the ice-edge cod, which feed the ringed seals, which feed the polar bears, follow the retreating sea ice farther and farther from the coast.

For polar bears, too, the drifting ice pack is their primary habitat for breeding, denning, and hunting; the decline in the bear population in the Beaufort region, documented last year by the US Geological Survey, was largely attributed to thinning ice.4 “For polar bears, the end is near,” declared The Week last year [5/12/06]. Yet despite its status as a public icon, efforts to place the largest terrestrial predator on earth on the federal endangered species list have been fiercely resisted by Big Oil and its government allies, since endangered status would prohibit federal approval of any activity that might adversely affect its habitat or compromise its ability to maintain its numbers—in short, any oil prospecting or drilling activity anywhere in the bear’s Alaskan range, along the coast (as at Prudhoe Bay) or out to sea.

In April 2004, the Interior Department confirmed plans to greatly expand and accelerate its leasing program in the Chukchi Sea, from Point Hope to a region of the Arctic Ocean well north of Point Barrow, and as far west as Big Oil could expand its realm without drilling on the Chukotka Peninsula of Siberia. The Chukchi Sea, though distant from any existing port or pipeline system, is shallow continental shelf—the northern region of the submerged Bering land bridge between Asia and North America by means of which so many Old World mammals, Homo sapiens included, crossed to the New World. At 39.4 million acres, what the Interior Department called the Chukchi Sea Planning Area reaches farther north than any region that the Interior Department had previously offered to the oil industry for lease. When we also consider the vastly increased leasing area in the Beaufort Sea, we find there has been a fourfold increase in the total area available for lease in northern Alaskan waters during the last five years.

  1. 1

    See my “Inside the Endangered Arctic Refuge,” The New York Review, October 19, 2006.

  2. 2

    See Elise Wolf, “Oil and Water: The Arctic Seas Face Irreversible Damage,” Earth Island Journal, Summer 2007.

  3. 3

    See Christopher W. Clark, statement submitted to the Cape Breton hearings on seismic testing in March 2001, available at livingoceans.org/oilgas/oilandgasreports/clark%20submission.pdf.

  4. 4

    Dan Joling, “Fewer Beaufort Polar Bear Cubs Survive,” Anchorage Daily News, November 16, 2006.

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