Alaska communities divided as Arctic drilling delayed

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The Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk aground off a small island near Kodiak Island Tuesday Jan. 1, 2013.(U.S. Coast Guard / AP)
The Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk aground off a small island near Kodiak Island Tuesday Jan. 1, 2013.(U.S. Coast Guard / AP)
The recent court decision that could stop Royal Dutch Shell from drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean might be felt strongest at the ocean’s doorstep, where something of a civil war — played out partly in the pages of the local newspaper — has erupted on the North Slope.

The Iñupiat villagers on that icy plain rely on the slope’s oil fields for job opportunities, generous dividends from the regional Alaska Native corporation, and revenue for expensive government services like electricity, running water and flush toilets.

But the North Slope villages are also dependent on the niqipiaq (nek-i-piak) of the sea, or the meat the Iñupiat call “real food,” such as whales, seals and walrus that are harvested year-round and are the mainstay of local diets.

Collaboration with environmental organizations questioned

On one side of the rift are corporate leaders who have dashed off letters to The Arctic Sounder newspaper, bashing environmental groups that were on the winning side of last month’s decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled the Interior Department had not properly considered the risks of offshore drilling before selling leases in the Chukchi Sea in 2008. The decision throws into question whether Royal Dutch Shell, already hobbled by its own mistakes during the 2012 exploration season, will forge ahead with its costly effort to drill off the Arctic coast.

An unusually direct letter came from Richard Glenn, a widely respected executive with ASRC, who took a Barrow-based tribal group to task for teaming up with what he called e-NGOs, environmental nongovernmental organizations, in the lawsuit that led to the decision.

His target was the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a regional tribal organization in Barrow that joined the lawsuit at the request of the Native village of Point Hope. ICAS and the village sided with several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club. In a measure of the complicated politics on the North Slope, the tribal group receives much of its funding from ASRC, and thousands of tribal members are also ASRC shareholders.

In his letter, Glenn called the lawsuits “frivolous,” and blasted the tribal group for collaborating with environmental organizations. Those groups use tribal leadership as a “tool” to further an agenda that threatens responsible development and will ultimately hurt the North Slope, he said.

Jobs threatened

Their efforts threaten jobs, local government revenue and the ASRC dividends that are funded mainly by the company’s activities in the oil and gas industry, such as leasing land.

“How do our tribal leaders look at themselves in the mirror and say that they have provided for the future of our children and grandchildren?” Glenn asked, noting that ICAS has helped conservation groups shut down development offshore and elsewhere, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Workers with the tribal group shot back in letters and social media. Johncody Hopson, a young ICAS employee who identified himself as an ASRC shareholder, said in a letter to the Sounder that there is nothing “frivolous” about stopping development that would devastate the food Iñupiat eat.

“By representing ASRC, how can you sit there and tell me you’re advancing our economic freedom while preserving our Iñupiaq way of life by supporting such a reckless offshore lease?” Hopson asked Glenn.

ASRC won’t be able to provide healthy niqipiaq after the oil companies have come and gone, he said. “Who will help us then, when the animals go away, when they contaminate our food?”

The dangers of drilling

Mary Sage, another ICAS employee and ASRC shareholder who said she was representing herself, also sent a letter to media that blasted Arctic Ocean drilling as “irresponsible.”

She raised the specter of a blowout like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, and wondered how many months it would take to cap a leak in the Arctic Ocean, with its bitter cold, howling wind and limited response vessels.

“If you live on the slope, you are most likely familiar with the storms we endure year round,” she wrote. “All entities shut down. Visibility is 0. Storms are serious. This is what I call Unfortunate Math and I really do not like the answer.”

Doreen Lampe, executive director of ICAS, said Sage and Hopson were expressing their own opinions. The group’s official response to Glenn’s letter came from President George Olemaun, who did not address Glenn’s comments but highlighted the Iñupiat people’s long dependence on the ocean and its animals. That relationship must “not be compromised,” he wrote.

Glenn, in his letter, also blasted the environmental groups for winning “threatened” listings for the polar bear and bearded and ringed seals. The groups are also trying to have aiviq, or walrus, listed under the Endangered Species Act, he said.

“The e-NGO’s do not care about our communities. By professing to protect the environment, they are taking away our ability to even participate in subsistence, which we all know depends upon cash for everything from bullets to gasoline,” he added.

In fact, though not named in Glenn’s letter, the only group that has petitioned those listings is the Center for Biological Diversity, based in California and Arizona.

The future of hunting

In the effort to list the animals, subsistence hunting has been called a threat to the seals and walrus, he said. As proof, a spokesman with ASRC sent a statement from a 2012 complaint filed in Alaska District Court, when the Center for Biological Diversity urged a listing decision.

“The ringed and bearded seal also face threats from current or potential overexploitation from hunting,” the complaint said, as well as from oil and gas development and other factors, especially climate change.

Rebecca Noblin, one of two Alaska employees with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the center was not referring to subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives, but to hunting occurring in Russia and China.

That’s clear if you read the original petition that led to the complaint, which discusses hunting by Alaska Natives but does not characterize Alaska Native subsistence hunters as a threat, she said. Meanwhile, the petition explicitly labels hunting in Russia and China as a threat.

Noblin said to her knowledge, no conservation groups have argued that subsistence harvests threaten marine mammals. As for the center, it’s primarily concerned about climate change, she said. It believes that protecting marine mammals under the Endangered Species Act — which permits Native subsistence hunting under a special exemption — is beneficial to Alaska Natives who eat subsistence foods.

“Richard Glenn’s op-ed is suggesting a conflict of interest that maybe doesn’t exist. In fact, we can protect these species under the Endangered Species Act and still have a subsistence harvest,” she said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

Related Links:

Canada:Polluters to face greater liability for offshore drilling spills says Canada, CBC News

Norway: Norway opens Barents Sea area to offshore oil drilling in new move into Arctic, The Associated Press

Russia: Oil companies push ahead with plans in Russia and Canada while sidelined in the U.S., Blog by Mia Bennett

United States: Shell calls off 2014 oil exploration in Arctic Alaska, Alaska Dispatch

 

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