Our Ocean Once Again

Shell Oil has had its eyes on the Arctic for over five years now. Hundreds of meetings and billions of dollars later, this summer was supposed to be Shell’s year to finally drill in the Arctic Ocean.

Seascape of floating pack ice in an open lead in springtime, Chukchi Sea, offshore from the arctic village of Barrow, Alaska. Photo by Steven Kazlowski.

Thankfully, a series of embarrassing safety setbacks have held Shell back. The announcement that the company would abandon plans to start drilling this year came just days ago, and people across the country and in Alaska are elated.

Here is the response from Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a resident of Barrow, Alaska, the country’s northernmost village, on the top of the world on the Arctic coastline. Rosemary is an Inupiat mother and grandmother who has been fighting for the health and safety of her people for decades.

— Fran Hunt, Director of the Resilient Habitats Campaign

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak’s Story

Shell’s drilling program means a lot more to my family and my village than to most people in the world. Shell’s cancelled attempt to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas came on the eve of our fall whaling season with many successful hunts. The whaling season means more to my people than anything else, and as our whaling crews are still on the hunt we celebrate the great news that Shell will not drill for oil this summer.

A polar bear, Ursus maritimus, swimming in the Beaufort Sea in late summer, off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo by Steven Kazlowski.

Efforts to cut costs, skirt laws and salvage old boats for drilling have hit Shell hard, and added to that are challenges from Mother Nature. However, local villagers still face difficult decisions about their way of life: keep the ocean clean for our hunting and our future, or have oil company jobs in a place where a gallon of milk is over ten dollars?

The biggest question of the day remains. Will the traditional and cultural activities of the Arctic people continue into the future? Efforts to develop oil and gas are increasing at the same time as more shipping traffic is expected to traverse our northern waters. It is important now more than ever to preserve and continue our traditions in the face of a changing Arctic.

The risk for our public health continues to be a main concern. Emissions from oil and gas development release tons of particulates into the air. Much is unknown of the risks for people who live near these activities because there is little data on effects to the environment and to our bodies. Though little is known, we do know that pregnant women, women of child-bearing age, and children should not work on an oil spill response effort. This example shows how important it is to assess human health concerns for people exposed to oil and gas development. The most important thing we have is the health of the ocean and the health of our people, but what will happen to us who live here when oil and gas development occurs?

Man looks down at an open lead in the pack ice, blown open by strong winds, indicating thinning sea ice conditions, from Cape Thompson, 26 miles south of Point Hope, Arctic coast of Alaska. Photo by Steven Kazlowski.

Many oceans have seen oil spills. Our Arctic Ocean, where mine and other villages depend on the unique animals for subsistence and our traditional and cultural ways could be next. We have learned to live in our environment and we protect our lands and waters. We fear that poor management and failures in development could threaten the resources we need most: bowhead and beluga whales, ringed seals, walrus, and more.

This summer we have watched the news of Shell’s continued failures in Alaska– from poor management to damaged oil response equipment, but these failures happen all over the world too.  Decisions in the Arctic should not be based on profits and dollars per barrel that put our ocean at risk, but decisions should be based on the voices of real people. We can change the way we consume energy and the way business is being done. We can make the future a brighter one without drill rigs in the Arctic Ocean.

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