Alaska oil's new 'Gulf of Mexico'
Oil companies are eyeing Alaska's largely untapped outer continental shelf. Critics say that's another Exxon Valdez waiting to happen.
(Page 2 of 2)
Inupiat Eskimos, however, have long opposed OCS drilling. They see it as a threat to their culture, which is founded on whaling and harvests of other marine mammals and fish.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"That's pretty concerning to us because of the damage that will cause to our 'garden,' " says Caroline Cannon, president of the tribal council for Point Hope, the Chukchi Sea whaling village believed to be the oldest continually occupied community in North America.
Oil spills and leaks will be impossible to clean up once they seep in and around the broken ice that doomed mariners in the past, say critics. They are unmoved by industry claims of improved technology demonstrated in hostile climes like the North Sea or the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico.
Risks go beyond spills, critics say: The din emitted by seismic tests and other operations will drown out whale calls and, possibly, injure or deafen marine mammals, while air pollution and air and marine traffic will cause further disruptions.
That would be amid stresses already evident from global warming, which has amplified impacts in the Arctic. Climate upheavals that are already imperiling polar bears, Pacific walruses, and other wildlife are obvious to residents, Cannon says.
"We've seen dramatic changes in the thickness of the ice," she says. "We're having rainy weather in January."
A series of lawsuits and administrative challenges has been filed by organizations ranging from small environmental groups to the North Slope Borough – the local government for the Minnesota-size district of northernmost Alaska.
One result was a court ruling that forced Shell to back down from its plan to drill more than a dozen wells over three years at two Beaufort prospects. Another ruling cast doubt on the entire 2008 lease sale. In that case, an appeals court in Washington, D.C., found that the Bush administration's leasing program was flawed and "irrational." It is unclear whether the leases sold then will have to be modified or even voided.
Now it is up to Mr. Salazar to review Alaska's entire offshore oil and gas future, not just in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas but also in the salmon-rich Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet areas, where the Bush administration had scheduled lease sales.
Stymied by the legal challenges, Shell is trying to win over locals. In response to Inupiat advice about whales' disdain for the color red, Shell ordered its vessels painted blue and white. The company has allowed its facilities and equipment to be used for local search-and-rescue missions. And the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a for-profit corporation owned by many of the same Inupiat residents whose tribal governments formally oppose offshore development, is a major contractor.