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AlaskaJournal.com: Kivalina says oil companies to blame for erosion, climate change

By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce
Web posted Sunday, March 16, 2008

Physical evidence of climate change has been surfacing for years, and it was so gradual that it wasn’t enough to cause alarm in the beginning, said Colleen Swan, tribal administrator for the Native village of Kivalina.

There were changes in the timing of the migration of certain sea mammals and thinning sea ice conditions that make it unsafe for hunters to set up camps on sea ice. There were also changes in weather patterns, bringing rain in late January, when temperatures were traditionally below zero on the barrier island in the Chukchi Sea in Northwestern Alaska.

Now the Inupiat Eskimo community is suing two dozen major energy companies federal court, alleging the companies brought on global warming by emitting into the air huge quantities of greenhouse gases. The defendants include ExxonMobil Corp. BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and 20 others.

A spokesman for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. said the oil company would have no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

But Jason Brune, executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska, said the people of Kivalina, and in fact most of rural Alaska, are dependent on the burning of fossil fuels for electric generation and heating.

“This case requires a great leap in logic to ever find any rationale in it,” said Brune, speaking on behalf of some 500 members of RDC, including virtually all of the resource development businesses that do business in Alaska. “In fact, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) petitioned Kivalina on March 4 to add major meat producers as defendants in the lawsuit. I think that says all you need to hear.”

Brune was referring to an announcement from PETA’s suggesting that Kivalina name Tyson Foods, Perdue, Smithfield, Hormel and other meat giants as defendants, along with the energy companies already named.

“Kivalina’s way of life and its very existence are threatened because of melting sea ice, but the town’s people are going after the wrong bad guys,” said PETA’s Bruce Friedrich. “The meat industry is at the top of the list when it comes to producing the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming�”

Matt Pawa, a Boston attorney who specializes in environmental law cases, is among those working on the case for Kivalina. Pawa said he doesn’t expect the case to come to trial for at least two years.

But Swan, born and raised in the Alaska Arctic, is a patient woman.

“For thousands of years, our people have survived in the Arctic simply by being aware of our surroundings,” said Swan, an Inupiat Eskimo whose people have for generations built their rugged traditional lifestyle on what land and sea provide. “The hunters do that by watching the weather patterns. The majority of our food comes from the land, sea and air. So our familiarity with the environment gives us the ability to survive in arctic conditions.”

In 2004, during a time when the shore ice had not yet formed, severe erosion hit the shoreline, threatening life and property. By August 2006, Kivalina residents were noticing sinkholes along the riverbanks that allowed silty material to flow into their fresh water sources.

“The major concern we have is the effects on the health and safety of our people and their property,” Swan said. “It is simply not safe for us to continue to live on the barrier reef. We need to move our village now.”

Kivalina residents made a final decision on where they want to move several years ago, but because it is along the coast and there is a big federal and state discussion about global warming and rising sea levels, the move has been delayed, Swan said.

“According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers we need to make another (relocation) decision based on their studies,” she said. “This is the fifth time our relocation planning and design has gone back to square one. We were doing fine until global warming became a major issue, and now it has caused division in the community. It is causing some people to think the site selected will not be safe.”

The idea of filing a lawsuit against 24 major energy companies began when Luke Cole, of the San Francisco-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, came to Kivalina to speak with his clients about another environmental justice lawsuit against operators of the Red Dog Mine. Heather Kendall Miller, an Anchorage attorney with the Native American Rights Fund also represents Kivalina.

On Feb. 26, the Native village of Kivalina named the energy companies as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which charges them with emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases that the village says have caused massive erosion problems.

“Kivalina faces imminent destruction from global warming due to the melting of sea ice that formerly protected the village from coastal storms during the fall and winter,” Swan and city administrator Janet Mitchell said in a written statement. “The diminished sea ice due to global warming has caused a massive erosion problem that threatens the village’s existence and urgently required the village be relocated.”

“The frustrating part is the discussion about global warming has been going on for years, the causes have been debated and distorted, and all the while � we are dealing with the realities of global warming,” Swan said.

The logical solution is to go to the polluters, rather than the consumers, she said.

“We just buy a service. How it is delivered to us is a responsibility of the producer, and when they’re aware of the potential hazards of their CO2 emissions, and when the technology is there to reduce those emissions, they are responsible for the damage it causes. They make themselves responsible by ignoring the warning signs, especially when there is a potential solution to the problem that they didn’t act on.”

As attorneys for both sides work the lawsuit toward trial, Swan continues efforts on the grassroots level, with a workgroup of Gov. Sarah Palin’s sub-cabinet on climate change. She has also met with Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and testified at hearings Stevens has held in Anchorage.

About 187 villages in Alaska that face flooding and erosion problems, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

“Alaska is 70 percent wetland,” Swan said. “If there is anywhere in the United States that is going to be dealing with serious problems associated with global warming, it would be here in our state.”

Margaret Bauman can be reached at [email protected].

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