Polar Distress

Polar Distress

With the clock running out in January, the Bush administration, ignoring the concerns of its own scientists and possibly breaking federal law, looks to open a vital stretch of Arctic habitat to offshore oil and gas drilling. So much for saving endangered bears.

By Daniel Glick
Published: May-June 2008

Inupiaq opposition to the sale hardly came from a knee-jerk, anti-oil position. In fact, their communities have mostly been supportive of onshore oil development, in part because those oil revenues flow into state trusts and Native corporation coffers. Those funds are used to build and sustain infrastructure and social benefits, such as schools, health clinics, university scholarships, and dividends for shareholders in Alaska's Native corporations. On top of that, Inupiaq leaders have long been suspicious of environmental activists from Anchorage or the Lower 48, in part because of the "Save the Whales" campaigns that once threatened their subsistence hunt.

But the current play to extend onshore energy development into the ocean prompted much of the Inupiaq community to draw a line on the shore. For each of the Native communities along the North Slope--Point Hope, Wainwright, Point Lay, Barrow, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik--the spring and fall bowhead whale hunt remains a cultural cornerstone as well as an ongoing key to survival for many who rely on a seasonal catch of fish, seal, walrus, and whale meat for cultural and alimentary sustenance.


The rhythms of arctic life--both human and non-human--thrum in concert with the seasons. In February, shortly after the sun rises above the horizon in most North Slope communities, Inupiaq whalers begin preparations for the spring bowhead hunt, readying their traditional bearded seal- or walrus-skin boats, called umiak. Women sew boat covers of seal or walrus hide onto the wooden frames using thread made from dried caribou sinew, waterproofing their stitches by rubbing them with seal or whale oil and painting them white so they blend in with the ice. The men on the 50 or so whaling crews from a dozen communities that have traditional rights to catch bowheads prepare their harpoons and camping gear. By April the spring hunt usually begins. After the hunt, these communities celebrate their success with blanket tosses and traditional feasts while whaling captains divvy up the muktuk, that same life-sustaining whale blubber, and meat among the villagers.

Inupiaq resistance to the Chukchi drilling leases centers on the threats to an ancient whaling culture. On January 1 the Native village of Point Hope (the westernmost of the seven coastal Inupiaq villages in the NSB), the city of Point Hope, the Inupiaq community of Arctic Slope, and the Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) network joined with national conservation organizations in a legal challenge to the leases. The lawsuit, which was filed by 13 plaintiffs, including Audubon, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society, claims that the expedited environmental review process minimized the potential environmental consequences of oil and gas spills and used outdated or insufficient data. The suit also charges that the process ignored existing data suggesting that animals like the spectacled eider, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, would suffer from offshore drilling.

In December 2006, during that review, Edward A. Itta, the current NSB mayor, wrote an unusually strong letter to the MMS. It concluded that oil and gas leasing was simply too problematic to support, given the lack of good environmental data, the dangers of drilling remote areas in harsh conditions, and the "failure" of the industry to show it could respond to oil spills. "It remains our strong belief that oil and gas leasing, exploration, and development should not occur in the Chukchi Sea," Itta argued.

His concerns reflect a widespread sentiment among scientific researchers like Quakenbush, the Alaska Fish and Game Department marine mammals expert, who insists that it's virtually impossible to gauge potential impacts when there is very little research to draw on--and when the region is changing so fast. She and others have been using satellite telemetry to track the movements of bowhead whales and other species. Their data indicate that the Chukchi is chock-full of animals--bowheads, beluga whales, polar bears, walruses, and various migratory bird species--that migrate through during the spring and fall.

Data that does exist about the long-term ecological consequences of oil spills, like $400 million worth of research completed in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, was virtually disregarded, says University of Alaska professor and marine conservation specialist Rick Steiner. So was research regarding the threat of invasive species carried in on construction and operations traffic. "Anything that would challenge the outcome or slow it down was marginalized or completely ignored," he says. Leaked e-mails from agency scientists involved with the Chukchi leases confirmed a pattern of intimidation, secrecy, and suppression of information that might have delayed or stopped the leases, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based group that defends federal whistleblowers.

Author Profile

Daniel Glick

Daniel Glick, a frequent contributor to Audubon, is a Colorado-based writer and the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth (PublicAffairs).

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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