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Drilling in the Arctic: Perspectives From an Alaska Native

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"Drilling in the Arctic: Perspectives From an Alaska Native"

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“Climate change is already wreaking havoc in our environment….”

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by Colleen Swan and Christine Shearer in a re-post

On October 3, 2011, the Obama administration said it was moving forward with oil-drilling leases off the coast of Alaska issued by the Bush administration in 2008. The leases had been challenged by environmental groups, opposition that gained momentum after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Yet the Interior Department said it would uphold nearly 500 leases issued in the Chukchi Sea, a victory for oil companies in the battle over Arctic Ocean drilling.

Those opposing the leases say there is no proven clean-up method for an oil spill in such harsh terrain and ice-choked waters, and that the environmental assessment done by oil companies for the area is inadequate.

There are also Alaska Natives living off the coast of the Chukchi Sea who worry about how the drilling and its impacts will affect their way of life. One of them is Colleen Swan, a resident of Kivalina, Alaska. Kivalina is a largely Inupiat community on a barrier reef island in the northwest of the state. The island already faces erosion from climate change, and its residents are trying to relocate. In the meantime, they are still dependent on the local environment. Colleen shared some of her thoughts on the oil leases:

The oil leases, no matter where in the Arctic, will affect all people who live off the wild life from the ocean, because it will disrupt the migrations of sea mammals. Here are some points I like to make when the timing is appropriate:

In the event of an oil spill, the people in coastal communities are the ones whose lives are impacted directly, yet are the ones who are least prepared for such a disaster. These are communities of people who have no means to respond to oil spills to protect their shores and their villages from the oil slick.

The oil companies and the government who issues such permits will continue with business as usual and the oil companies will recover. They have reserves to fall back on. We don’t. Once we lose our livelihood, our subsistence way of life, it’s gone for a long, long time. The ocean will not recover as quickly as the oil companies and neither will the coastal communities.

The oil companies have their oil spill response plans, they have their resources. The government permit issuers don’t live up here; they will not be personally impacted. The coastal communities have no oil spill response plan that would enable us to protect our communities – we have no alternative food source identified aside from the land animals, which are not nearly enough to supply all of our needs throughout the year.

The fact that we are coastal communities, especially in Arctic Alaska, means that we would also lose our main food source, food that sustains us through the long, cold, harsh winters. The food we eat survives in the Arctic and it enables us to survive also in this climate. More than 3/4ths of our diet comes from the ocean.

These things are not thought through by neither the oil companies nor the government. As long as we are lacking in our ability to respond to oil spills, the plans that have been approved are seriously lacking. They have not begun to even comprehend the meaning of an oil spill in our already fragile environment.

Climate change is already wreaking havoc in our environment, especially in the oceans. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have caused serious harm to the ocean because of how CO2 reacts in the ocean: it has caused the ocean to become increasingly acidic, especially in the Arctic oceans.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  has determined that not enough research has been done in the Arctic waters.

The entire Arctic is seriously lacking in scientific understanding of the current condition due to climate change. Because of how climate change has affected our relocation project and has caused stumbling blocks for our progress, climate change needs to be a consideration to be factored into any permitting or other federal or government-based action or decision. There is no telling how a changing climate, which has affected the ice conditions in the Arctic, will impact oil development activities.

A warming climate has caused ice conditions to deteriorate. Yet, at the same time, because it is in the beginning stages of change, whether we have enough ice covering from year to year or no ice is unpredictable. The ice conditions seem to fluctuate from year to year between adequate ice build-up for whaling activities or not enough ice to support the hunters. This fact alone challenges the decision made to move forward with Arctic Offshore oil exploration and proves that there still is not enough information for government to be issuing permits for any oil development offshore. The Northwest Passage along the coast of Alaska is still not completely open and the amount of ice covering in the winter/spring of 2010/2011 proves that.

A 2011 report issued by the U.S. Geological Survey called for ”More native dialogue” of the local people in studies conducted for offshore oil development “to address science gaps, including subsistence impacts.

I haven’t even begun to completely articulate the entire issue. Life in the Arctic is not that simple. It’s not as cut and dried as the permit issuers and the oil companies imply that it is. The Arctic oceans are complicated and because of a changing climate, unpredictable.

This piece was originally published in the Conductive Chronicle and was re-printed with permission.

Related pieces:

Colleen Swan was born and raised in Kivalina, Alaska. She is a Kivalina City Council member and a Commissioner of the Northwest Arctic Borough Economic Development Commission, and has been involved in the relocation project of Kivalina since it began in 1992.

Christine Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch. She is Managing Editor of Conducive, and author of Kivalina: A Climate Change Story.

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One Response to Drilling in the Arctic: Perspectives From an Alaska Native

  1. kermit says:

    I’m not sure that the CEOs of the oil companies and the politicians haven’t thought this through, although I’m willing to concede the possibility. It’s more likely that they simply don’t care, because they personally would not suffer in the event of a spill. These people are, as far as I can tell, sociopaths.