• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Alaska: Big Oil and the Inupiat-Americans

Last April (2006), at an “open water science” meeting held in Anchorage by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the whaling captains of Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Barrow, Wainwright, and Point Hope tried to reach some sort of accommodation with the oil industry on how it might operate offshore with minimum impact on whale habitat and migration. But the whalers were soon disillusioned by the patronizing attitudes of the oil companies and the federal agencies that do their bidding, especially the so-called “conflict-avoidance agreements” which suppressed their queries and objections. In May 2007 the tribal government passed a broad resolution “to strongly oppose the development of oil and gas in the 1002 area of the ANWR and in offshore waters of the Arctic Ocean, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea.”

On a mainland bluff overlooking a large lagoon on the Chukchi coast sits the stark, wind-scoured Inupiat village known as Point Lay. When the photographer Subhankar Banerjee and I visited Point Lay in early June 2006, we were told by an animated Inupiat leader named Marie Tracey that all the men were down at the lagoon getting boats ready for the annual beluga hunt, which might take place as early as the following week, or as soon as the pack ice moved offshore and freed the coastal waters for the whale migration. As we spoke, I was observing a small flock of snow geese passing overhead, and Marie Tracey said that because wild geese and other migratory birds are protected in the breeding season, the Inupiat had to make do with “white man grub” from the village store eked out with fish and the few caribou which trail down to the coast at this time of year. For the Inupiat, whose marvelous adaptability and perseverance has preserved their ancient way of life more or less intact in the few small communities found here and there along the 1,400 miles of north Alaska coast, the fundamental basis of their diet and the ancient source of their physical and spiritual well-being as well as ceremony, art, and myth are the large marine mammals—whales, seals, walruses, and polar bears. Of these, the most esteemed at Point Lay was the small white whale called the beluga.

Marie Tracey’s people were very worried that industrial explosions from both land and sea might deflect the whales from their coastal migration past Point Lay. On their way north, the beluga usually convene for a week or more off a cove called Omalik, some thirty-five miles to the south. “Those coal companies want to build a mine right inland from Omalik,” Marie Tracey told us, “and run a railroad down there to ship the coal out.” Her people’s more immediate concern, however, were the offshore explosions of the seismic prospecting scheduled by Shell Oil for later in the summer.

In the summer of 2006, as feared by the Inupiat, Shell Oil’s armada “shot seismic” in the Chukchi before following the sea ice north into the Beaufort Sea, where the ice lingered too late to permit the drilling of four exploratory wells on Shell’s early leases. Despite the company’s oft-voiced claims to environmental responsibility, drill sites for 2007 to 2009 are located off the Canning River, not far east of the huge industrial oilfield complex at Prudhoe Bay and only a dozen miles offshore of the Arctic refuge. Another planned drilling site farther east is just three miles off the Hulahula River near the small village of Kaktovik, and another off the beautiful Kongakut River. Both rivers descend from the magnificent high snow peaks of the Brooks Range and cross the great caribou and bird breeding sanctuary on the refuge coast plain.

In early 2007, the Shell Beaufort exploration drilling plan for those first four wells was submitted to the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Service (MMS). On February 15, the MMS released its brief environmental assessment of Shell’s offshore exploration; it concluded that Shell’s impact would not be significant, and approved its drilling plan even while conceding a lack of adequate research and scientific data. The agency’s perfunctory assessment fell short of the full Environmental Impact Statement required for such controversial projects.

The department’s US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service—responsible, respectively, for the protection of polar bears and whales—also acquiesced, approving Shell’s seismic exploration operations in the knowledge that they would profoundly disturb marine mammals.

The ever-compliant Interior Department nevertheless rewarded Shell with a license to carry out its program, which included plans to bring two drill ships, two large icebreakers, and a dozen support vessels to the Beaufort Sea later that summer. There they would drill up to four oil wells this year and a total of eighteen over the next three to five years. These operations would necessarily take place in whale migration pathways and offshore habitats of marine mammals—the areas most critical for the subsistence hunting of native Alaskan residents on the North Slope.5 To nobody’s surprise, Big Oil and its allies in the federal bureaucracies had effectively ignored the potential impact of their plan both on the ocean and the Alaska native communities.

In May 2007, in an effort to avert this potential environmental crisis, a number of Alaska native organizations and conservationists appealed and then filed suit against the MMS for its unwarranted endorsement of Shell’s own perfunctory environmental assessment.6 The organizations argued that MMS’s use of an inadequate environmental assessment to support its approval of Shell’s exploration plan violated the National Environmental Policy Act; they also charged that the MMS failed to analyze the consequences of a crude oil spill and seriously underestimated the impact of the exploration activities on bowhead whales, polar bears, and native subsistence resources and activities. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction holding up the exploration plan; the pending case will be heard in court in December 2007.

On June 24, 2007, the Frontier Airlines flight north from Kotzebue passed over brown barrens patched by snow and a forbidding coast half-hidden by icy fog; we could barely make out the bird cliffs at Cape Thompson, which after World War II had been chosen as the site of an artificial harbor to be blasted out by four atomic bombs; though billed as a port for fishing vessels, there was no commercial fishery on this coast and nor is there today, a half century later. An attempt to evade the Nuclear Test Ban’s prohibition of above-ground nuclear testing as well as one of the most feckless experiments ever conceived, “Project Chariot”—mercifully aborted after a two-year fight led by the Inupiat people of Point Hope, only 35 miles away—was the brainchild of Dr. Edward Teller, coon-masked prototype for Dr. Strangelove and fanatical proponent of peacetime nuclear power.7

Soon the great crescent bay of Point Hope appeared, even as its ten-mile point (Alaska’s farthest northwest cape, pointing at Asia) disappeared westward into the sea mist. The great sand cape is carved and recarved by the outwash of the Kuukpuk River and strong coastal currents, and as it erodes, Point Hope village retreats toward the base of the point; as an old man named Koonuknowruk would tell us, “Old Tingara” has moved east four times within his lifetime, and in this period, a whole third of the sand cape has been lost. An archeological dig in the 1940s in the Tingara that preceded the present ruins produced artifacts that were carbon-dated back to at least 2000 years ago, and it is thought that the original settlement may have been far older: in fact, Tingara or Point Hope, on a cold barren coast almost infinitely silent for thousands of years, is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement in North America.8

Banking over broad lagoons, the plane landed on a strip between the last mounds and shacks of Old Tingara and the present village, where the Point Hope elders, anxious to share their worries about contamination of the sea by seismic blasts and contamination of the land and air by Red Dog, a huge open-pit zinc mine some 85 miles away, had called a special meeting of the village council. A group of a dozen elders and officials spoke to us around a table in the Tribal Council building.

Franklin Quaavik gave the invocation (“O Lord, help us to understand what is happening to us, O Lord.”) Next, Mayor George Kingik reminded us that US Government threats to Inupiat existence dated all the way back to post–World War II legislation that had made all of north Alaska north of the Kuskokwim, Porcupine, and Yukon Rivers a military zone under the authority of the Defense Department. A few years later, the Point Hope people had to deal with Project Chariot, from its first inception in 1958 to 1962 when it was finally abandoned. Their great victory in that protest a half century ago against Project Chariot gives these elders hope that with more media attention and public education, their tribal litigation against offshore resource exploitation and seismic testing might yet succeed. “We had to become political people overnight!” one lady said.

Lily Tuzroyluke slipped me a quick list of the eleven local sites of military contamination, including the fuel spills, heavy metals, PCBs, lead paint, benzene, and asbestos at old military installations such as the Army camp and armory and weather station, in addition to the radioactive soil from a Nevada test buried in a government experiment at the Chariot site and the barrels of nuclear waste found in a cliff cave not far north of Cape Thompson. What was missing from this list, of course, was the presence everywhere in the Far North of accumulated toxic fall-out; for many years now, the traditional hunting cultures have been beset by unceasing chemical poisoning of their environment, their game animals, and themselves by PCBs, DDT, dieldrin, mercury, and many other lethal substances borne north from the industrial world by ocean currents and more particularly high altitude winds, descending in the cold air of winter to infiltrate the food chains and instill poisons into all of Arctic life, from the microplankton eaten by marine organisms that accumulate in the meat and livers of fish, whales, seals, and bear to the lowly lichens on which caribou subsist in the lean seasons. 9 By a sad irony of environmental injustice, the primary victims of this omnipresent and inescapable contamination are a native people who contributed nothing to industrial pollution, including the greenhouse gases and global warming now diminishing their world.

The seismic activity off this coast last year (July to November), Point Hope elders told us, had killed large numbers of fish and other marine life, which had washed ashore during and after the testing: meanwhile, the bowheads had passed far offshore and the walrus had failed to appear. “When we were out whaling, we were always told to be quiet because whales are real sensitive to noise,” said Rex Tuzroyluke, a silver-haired man with an elfin smile. “We were taught how to listen to the whales, using an oar stuck in the water. That’s how I heard Belugas. Well, last year we caught no whales or walrus and the caribou never come neither. The whales are changing their migration because of all that noise.”

  1. 5

    Personal correspondence, September 8, 2007, from P.A. Miller, Arctic Coordinator of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, a party to the suit, who for twenty years has studied the impacts of offshore oil drilling in Alaska.

  2. 6

    They were led by the group called Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), a native grassroots activist organization for all of Alaska’s native tribes. The group included a number of conservation organizations: the North Slope Borough, a regional government; the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a regional tribe. Crucial to this suit was a comprehensive thirty-two-page critical analysis prepared in late 2006 by the National Resources Defense Council and its allies that was drawn on for the plaintiffs’ brief.

  3. 7

    See Dan O’Neill, The Firecracker Boys (reissued by Basic Books, 2007.

  4. 8

    See Berit Foote, The Tigara Eskimos and Their Environment (North Slope Borough, 1992).

  5. 9

    See Marla Cone, Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic (Grove, 2005).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print