Tomorrow Oceana board member Ted Danson will testify against offshore drilling in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska (more specifically, Lease sale 193). Danson, a long time ocean advocate, believes that the Arctic is not ready for offshore development. There is a lack of baseline science to determine if offshore drilling can be conducted safely in the region, and there is neither the infrastructure nor the response capability to respond to a large spill.
This past week Danson visited the Arctic community of Barrow, Alaska. Accompanied by Oceana’s Pacific Director Susan Murray, Mike LeVine and myself, Ted visited with Mayor Edward Itta of the North Slope Borough, Director Taqulik Hepa of the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, Chairman Harry Brower of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and other officials. Oceana hosted a community meet-and-greet where Danson took the opportunity to meet and learn from coastal residents, while sharing his stories and connections to the ocean.
The people of Barrow welcomed us with open arms and overwhelming hospitality. The staff of the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management gave us a personal tour and shared countless stories of arctic adventures and their subsistence way of life. Arctic hunters and subsistence gatherers have very strong cultural and day-to-day connections to their environment, which has resulted in a deep understanding of Arctic ecosystems and wise stewardship ethic. The marine environment, where much of their subsistence resources come from, is particularly important.
Hours of conversation and stories spanning decades made it clear that rapid climate change and ever growing oil and gas activities are transforming this Arctic region. Onshore oil and gas activities have formed a tax base that provides infrastructure and services, including public schools, running water, sewer systems, gas heat and other modern amenities you and I take for granted. The community is in a tight spot. Onshore oil production is declining, which is decreasing the funding for the community to provide services and jobs.
There is tremendous pressure from oil companies to expand oil and gas activities offshore, which is enticing for some, but a rude awakening for others. The marine environment, which is so important to many Inupiat, is particularly sensitive to industrial activities, and the risks of offshore oil and gas activities are much higher than onshore activities. Expanding oil and gas activities offshore may bring more jobs and potentially strengthen local economies, but it is a grave threat to the culture and subsistence way of life of Inupiat communities.
The residents of Barrow made it clear to us: change was not a bad thing. It brought schools and services to them. The Inupiat make up a resilient and ever-evolving community that adapts to whatever comes its way. However, they have serious concerns with the years to come and the challenges they face with the pressure to expand oil and gas activities offshore.
Many feel that too much is happening too fast, and they have serious concerns about the lack of baseline science, lack of oil spill response capacity, and all the unknowns about industrial discharges in the ocean. They do not want oil companies to be able to pump industrial sludge and sewage from ships and oil platforms into the migration routes of the bowhead whales, seals and fish that they depend upon.
We can decide today to appropriately manage and protect this spectacular region, instead of recklessly exploiting it. We hope you will follow Ted Danson’s example and speak out against rash offshore drilling in the Arctic.
We have the opportunity to prevent another Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and it is our duty to make sure the government regulators and the oil companies have it right before moving forward with activities. The baseline science must be done adequately, emergency response capabilities need to be world class, and Arctic communities must be a part of decision making. We have the responsibility to leave an Arctic we can all be proud of to future generations.
Will Race is Oceana’s Pacific Communications Manager