Environment

Why We Should Be Very Worried About the Arctic Oil Rush

Big oil companies like Shell have a proven record of negligence and a legacy of pollution in Alaska.

Photo Credit: © Wyatt Rivard/Shutterstock.com

I don’t blog. I work all the time, weaving together components of strategy for the people on the frontlines of Alaska who are facing down Big Oil and Mining Companies, and addressing Climate Change. I am also a full time mother, so I rarely have that extra moment to blog. But today I made time, so here it is.

So Shell Oil and the Arctic, hmmm well let’s start with what Shell does and is: This company operates around the world and their Industry standard is one of pressuring governments to allow exploration of oil and gas resources in a way that maximizes profits for them at the expense of the environment and human rights, in particular those of Indigenous peoples. Here in Alaska, We’ve seen nearly every large multi-national company come into our homelands. The problem with their presence here is that these big oil companies like Shell have a proven record of negligence and a legacy of pollution in Alaska. Shell itself is encumbered with their own appalling record of Indigenous rights violations, human rights abuses and a trail of broken promises within Indigenous territories in Canada, Nigeria, and Russia. Despite their own destructive record, they expect that Americans and the Inupiat among other Alaska Indigenous coastal tribes will trust them when it comes to offshore development of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas? The future of these Oceans and People are in their hands. A scary thought in itself.

First of all, the profit-at-all-cost mentality of corporations is the primary threat to Inupiat and the ecosystem that sustains their way of life. Indigenous peoples subsistence rights are intrinsic to the environment due to the intimate connection we have in relation to our physical nourishment, health, cultural practices, spirituality, and social systems. The reality is, the ecosystem, when left intact, is the greatest assurance that subsistence rights will remain intact. Therefore when there is discussion of ensuring subsistence rights in the terms of development it is an absolute contradiction.

This week members of the Native Village of Point Hope, Alaska and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) attended the Royal Dutch Shell AGM to confront the Chairman and Board over Shell’s decision to pursue highly risky ‘extreme energy’ projects without adequate consultation and accommodation of Indigenous communities. Projects such as Arctic offshore drilling and tar sands will have little long-term benefit for the company, and expose it to reputational damage, political and financial risk, including litigation.

Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) sent Mae Hank, Inupiat from Point Hope Alaska to be our representative at the Shell AGM to address the Chairman, Board and Shareholders on behalf of her community. We wanted to show Shell that their risky Alaska offshore plans for the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas impact Indigenous Peoples, the Inupiat of Alaska directly and all Indigenous coastal communities down the western coastline of Alaska indirectly. Sending Mae was a tactic to put a human face to their drilling projects. We felt that they needed a reality check, to be confronted with the human element, not just a financial statistic of their endeavours. They also need to realize that there is a large majority of Inupiat that oppose Shell’s offshore plans and they should not buy the company line “Inupiat support offshore development” Shell lies.

Shell must understand the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of the Arctic Ocean are critical to the Indigenous people of Alaska’s Arctic Slope, the Inupiat and their subsistence way of life, which is interdependent with the marine ecosystem of the Arctic Oceans. The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas provide critical habitat for the endangered bowhead whale, beluga whales, gray whales, walruses, seals and polar bears as well as staging and molting areas for migratory birds among them threatened spectacled and Steller’s eiders. The Inupiat call the ocean their garden. It provides for all their physical, spiritual, cultural and social needs. The relationship of the people to the ocean runs deep.

Since 2007, Royal Dutch Shell has been trying to rush through risky exploration drilling proposals for the Beaufort, and Chukchi seas of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. Litigation, has helped slow this rush to drill there, along with several other events. This year on Feb. 27, 2013 Royal Dutch Shell announced that it has suspended plans for oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean for 2013 due to a year of mishaps. Crazy mishaps, almost like a running cartoon…Last summer a massive sheet of ice halted their drilling program, and their oil spill containment dome — to cap a blowout in an emergency in Arctic operations — failed miserably in tests. The dome “breached like a whale” after malfunctioning, and then sank 120 feet. When they recovered the 20-foot-tall containment dome, it had “crushed like a beer can” under pressure, this year the Kulluk drill rig ran aground on New Year’s Eve, and the Noble Discoverer drill ship is the subject of a criminal investigation over safety and pollution-related violations among other events. Umm yeah, they are “Arctic Ready” aha sure.

In spite of the inundation of substantial problems throughout and after the drilling season, Shell plans to continue it’s efforts for exploratory drilling in 2014 in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The massive drilling plans project an estimated 174 exploratory and extraction wells within critical habitats of culturally sensitive marine mammals. Shell Oil and associated agencies lack huge gaps of information of the harsh conditions, current and tidal systems, ever changing and unpredictable ice, and dangers of the Arctic Ocean; in turn, which could potentially lead to a very large oil spill. An oil spill in the remote Arctic ecosystem would be devastating – currently, there is no effective way to clean up an oil spill in Arctic conditions, and there is a lack of infrastructure in the region to support an adequately safe drilling or cleanup program.

The company has spent $4.5bn securing permits to drill in Arctic waters, however they have been proven incapable of operating here. Shell’s experiences should serve as a reality check as decisions are made about whether to authorize these activities in the future. This is why we sent Mae Hank to the Shell AGM, to assert that Shell should not move forward with Arctic Drilling! After the Shell AGM, Mae spoke eloquently about the experience:

“Shell has stated that despite their current ‘pause’ in their Arctic offshore Alaska activities, the company is committed to drill there again in the future,” she said. “As an Inupiat Mother and Grandmother, I strongly oppose this plan, as do a majority of Inupiat. There is still no viable spill plan in place not only for cleaning up spills but how the company will compensate our community for the loss of food and food security. I asked the Chairman and the Board to explain how they would compensate our community’s food security and needs when the next major oil spill disaster happens. The Chairman and the board simply danced around the question and did nothing to quell my concerns.”

In this author’s humble opinion, when it comes to offshore drilling in Alaska the risks outweigh the benefits in this case, and there is absolutely no way that shell can operate safely in the Arctic environment under the cover of darkness, severe cold weather, perilous storms and broken ice conditions. When we take a look at the ridiculous mishaps that occurred with their Arctic Activity last year, this is very clear. To date there is still no viable spill plan in place. If drilling offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas resumes we could be left with another spill like the deepwater horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the destruction of one of our planet’s most vital ecosystems.

Faith Gemmill is the Executive Director of Resisting Environmental Destruction of Indigenous Lands (REDOIL). REDOIL is a movement of Alaska Natives of the Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Tlingit, Eyak, Gwich’in and Denaiana Athabascan Tribes who came together in June 2002 in Cordova, Alaska to form a powerful entity to challenge the fossil fuel and mining industries and demand our rights to a safe and healthy environment conducive to subsistence.