Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image

Inupiat Eskimo sue Shell to fend off danger of offshore oil

San Francisco Chronicle: Inupiat Eskimo sue to fend off danger of offshore oil

Saturday, May 17, 2008

(05-17) 04:00 PDT Anchorage, Alaska — As mayor of Alaska’s wealthy North Slope Borough, Edward Itta is keenly attuned to the importance of oil. The government structure he oversees would virtually collapse without the annual infusion of royalties from the giant fields of crude in his region.

Like many Inupiat Eskimo in Arctic Alaska, Itta generally supports the development of more reserves in his region, site of America’s largest oil field. The seasoned whaling captain even believes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, at the borough’s eastern extreme, would be “safe and sensible.”

But Itta’s enthusiasm for industry plummets when conversation shifts to offshore oil extraction. Rich in oil and gas reserves, the northern seas are also home to whales, seals and other marine species that to this day make up the bulk of the Inupiat diet.

“We understand the need for oil and gas, and we depend on the benefits they bring,” Itta said at a recent meeting between oil companies, federal regulators and his fellow whaling captains. “But we’ve got a lot on the line. Our culture, the very deepest part of our being, rises or falls with the fate of the whales and seals and other species in Arctic waters.”

Inupiat in the 10 whaling villages along the Arctic coast worry that noise from offshore drill pads and the seismic guns used to locate hydrocarbons beneath the seabed will scare migrating animals into deep water, making the jobs of their hunters difficult, if not impossible.

In 2007, the borough and several other parties brought two lawsuits against the federal government, saying officials did not conduct proper environmental reviews before holding a lease sale in the Beaufort Sea and approving exploration plans there by Shell Oil Co.

“Scientists don’t fully understand the damage climate change has already caused and whether oil and gas will prove to be a different tipping point in terms of ecological harm,” said Whit Sheard, Alaska program director for Pacific Environment. The group is also involved in lawsuits over oil industry activities in the Arctic, one of which overlaps with the borough. “The government is taking the opposite of a precautionary approach. In the absence of key data, they’re still pushing forward.”

With the brief summer window for drilling fast approaching, both sides are awaiting a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that will determine whether Shell can proceed after the ice recedes.

So far, neither the legal wrangling, nor the high costs of Arctic operations have daunted Shell and other top oil companies, which are eager to capitalize on soaring prices and projections of unquenchable demand for oil and gas in the coming decades.

They have been making progress under the Bush administration, which is promoting exploration by moving aggressively in the last three years to open the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to oil and gas leasing.

“The only way to really find out how much oil and gas is present is to explore,” said Robin Cacy, an Alaska spokeswoman for the federal Minerals Management Service. “Given the current situation with the high price of oil and increasing needs, it spurs us to at least offer the area to exploration to see what is out there.”

The agency, which oversees the nation’s offshore lease sales, estimates that the Chukchi and Beaufort combined contain roughly 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 104 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.

As the largest new player offshore, Shell has spent nearly $3 billion on leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Both Shell and ConocoPhillips are trying to amass federal permits that would free them to ramp up exploration this summer. Those permits would allow the “incidental harassment” of wildlife during routine industrial activities.

The paucity of scientific data on the region has North Slope residents and some scientists worrying about the wisdom of distributing those permits.

Borough wildlife biologist Robert Suydam says “gigantic data gaps” make it difficult to make recommendations on industrial activities.

“Aside from bowhead whales, we really don’t know the basic trends,” Suydam said. “For example, we have no idea how many ringed seals there are, or how many bearded seals. And we really don’t know what belugas eat.”

Federal officials and oil companies admit that industrial activity will undoubtedly affect some marine mammals but point out that the permits come with certain rules attached to minimize the impacts on wildlife.

Companies must watch for marine mammals by plane and ship during seismic tests and shut off the air guns if an animal is close by. They also must make sure the tests do not interfere with the spring and autumn whale hunts.

“There’s lots of things we do to take whaling season into account to make sure we’re sensitive to it,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith. “We’re obviously very aware of it and hopefully we’ll be good neighbors.”

Drilling opponents counter that the rules are hard to enforce. They are also concerned about the devastation an oil spill could wreak on the environment and the local economy. With offshore exploration just beginning, the technology to clean up large oil spills in the area is rudimentary at best.

“We just don’t have the infrastructure to support a response,” said Leslie Pearson, the state’s director of spill prevention and response for the Department of Environmental Conservation. “The communities are very small and there aren’t any real ports, so whatever development takes place, the companies are going to have to bring that capability, or be willing to assist in building it.”

Roughly a dozen communities along the Arctic coast rely on meat from the spring and autumn whale hunts to supplement store-bought foods like Spam, crackers and Ramen noodles. Families save the blubber, called muktuk, for Christmas and other holiday celebrations throughout the year.

The 7,200 mostly Inupiat residents of the North Slope eat more than 430 pounds of wild foods on average each year, according to a 2003 study by economists at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Much of that is meat and oils from bowhead, beluga, walrus and seal.

“There are numerous activities centered around whaling, starting with soaking skins for boats, celebrating the whaling festival and distributing meat to all 300 households in our village,” said Lily Tuzroyluke of the Native Village of Point Hope. The tribe joined with environmental groups in early May in yet another lawsuit – there are at least five – against the federal government’s offshore decisions.

Although the Inupiat have survived off the northern seas for generations, their financial dependence on oil has grown since the late 1970s, when crude started flowing from their lands into the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

In fiscal year 2008, the borough’s operating budget was $287.5 million, 74 percent of which came from property taxes on tundra oil fields largely leased by BP PLC, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. The money helps pay for schools, health care and other basic functions of a local government that covers an area about the size of Minnesota.

But offshore leases are different. The borough can’t tax them directly because they belong to the federal government. Itta has spoken with Alaska’s congressional delegation about legislation that could divert more offshore revenue to the borough. He insists that a favorable outcome would not shake his opposition to development.

“The ancient values that define us as a people are transmitted through participation in traditional whaling and hunting activities,” said Itta. “If we lose the hunt, we lose our identity. It’s that simple.”


This article appeared on page A – 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

0 Comments on “Inupiat Eskimo sue Shell to fend off danger of offshore oil”

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: