Shell Shows It Can’t Ensure Safe Offshore Oil Operations in the Arctic
When it came time to prove it could safely handle an offshore spill in Alaska, the oil company flunked its own test.
The melt-off threatens birds like spectacled eiders as well. No one knew where they wintered until the 1990s, when researchers, alarmed at their declining population, started tracking them with satellite telemetry. It turned out that the world's remaining birds were holed up in one small area of polynyas (open areas in the ice). But what will befall these birds now that ice is vanishing or if oil seeps into the remain- ing polynyas? "Species like that give you heartburn when you think about a spill," remarked Warnock.
Global warming is changing the Arctic faster than it's changing most other regions, and virtually nothing is known about how or if its wildlife can adapt. A record melt-off of pack ice occurred in 2012. Southern birds never before seen in Barrow are showing up, including a great blue heron, an olive-sided flycatcher, and a northern gannet. The week before I arrived, a dragonfly had been seen.
Guiding Warnock and me one morning was Qaiyaan Su'esu'e, an Inupiat envi- ronmental educator and the former natural resources director for the regional tribal government. "When I was younger," she told us, "ice would show up at the begin- ning of October. Now it's late November or even December. Beautiful multi-year icebergs used to be a common sight.
I haven't seen one in years. We depend on bowheads, but now our whaling seasons are shorter because of unpredictable ice conditions."
Still, some welcome global warming because it has opened sea lanes for so much of the year. "I will be one of those persons most cheering for an endless summer in Alaska," effused Shell Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby, as he addressed a crowd in Girdwood, Alaska, the week I was in Barrow. "There will be spills," he allowed in an interview with the BBC, though he predicted they won't "impact people's subsistence."
Barrow's poverty works to Shell's advantage. Rude houses, some burned out, repose on stilts so their heat won't melt the permafrost. Chained dogs sit shelterless on mud amid rusted oil barrels, junked snowmobiles, junked cars, junked boats, and frames for skin boats. The ubiquitous dumpsters, most unemptied, bear spray- painted messages like "Smoke you lose; quit you win."
"Oil would provide jobs," said Su'esu'e. "We didn't have flush toilets, fire departments, police stations, or schools. We have all of that now because of Prudhoe Bay [the oil source for the Trans-Alaska pipeline]. That was on our land, so we got revenue sharing. Some people think that if Shell drills offshore, we're going to have the same kind of boom. We're not. The ocean is federal land. And Shell could just barge the oil out. Risks outweigh benefits. I advocate for awareness, making sure people have an opportunity to be part of the public process."
Assisting Su'esu'e in the challenging work of public education is Joe Sage, a whal- ing captain and director of the Native Village of Barrow Wildlife Department. "An oil spill could destroy our lifestyle," he said. "It would do a lot of damage to birds, bowheads, and other marine mammals. Shell has no idea what they're up against here."
Sage received his captain's commission (the ultimate Inupiat honor) from his uncle Roy Nageak, who started whaling when he was nine. "We've always been dependent on what we catch," Nageak declared, seated on his couch beside and under renderings ofJesus."WhentheYankee whalers killed off the bowheads, our people got sick and our population went way down. These oil companies have more access to our oceans than to our land--that's the pathetic part. They came in like they owned everything. We were so few. God gave us bowhead hunting season, then seal hunting season, then caribou season, then fishing season, then berry-picking season. The bowheads come to us. It's a spiritual connection. If you have respect for the animals, if you're at peace with the environment that God has created, they will come to you. Seals do the same. We are rich in the resources we have. Money from the oil compa- nies has made a rift with our people."
I found no such discontent with oil money in Wainwright--a village of 575 perched on tundra bluffs beside the Chukchi Sea. The flight manifest on the Beechcraft 1900 from Barrow consisted of toilet paper, milk, Shasta cola, and two passengers, includ- ing me. The only building at the Wainwright airport was a porta-potty with a tipped-over toilet that I forsook in favor of the leeward side of an oil tank. The houses were similar to those in Barrow except draped with drying animal skins.
The Interior Department is amenable to Shell's tentative plan to land a pipeline from its offshore wells in Wainwright, run it through the National Petroleum Reserve, and connect it to the Trans-Alaska pipeline.