Ahead of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s upcoming visit to Washington, World Wide Fund (WWF) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), activist groups that have long waged campaigns against Arctic drilling, sent a letter to the Obama Administration calling simultaneously for greater respect for indigenous rights and practices, more consultation with indigenous communities – and a ban on future Arctic offshore oil and gas development. The activists should really take their own recommendations out for a spin sometime: If they had taken the time and effort to speak with Alaska’s indigenous populations, they would have quickly realized that many Natives support Arctic oil and gas development and view energy production as a critical way to sustain the subsistence traditions and ways of life cultivated and preserved over the course of thousands of years.
In their letter, WWF and NRDC write that they want to ensure that “indigenous rights, practices, and understanding are respected” and that indigenous communities are consulted “to the maximum feasible extent in the formulation and implementation of policies and practices.” Given their emphasis on soliciting indigenous opinions, it is curious that the groups should then arrive at recommendations directly at odds with the prevailing Native view of oil and gas development.
As is to be expected from these groups, WWF and NRDC proposed stopping future Arctic oil and gas exploration and development by taking Arctic Outer Continental Shelf lease sales off the table entirely. First of all, such a proposal reveals a flagrant disregard for Alaska’s Constitution, which recognizes that the “future wealth of the State of Alaska” would “depend largely” on how it develops its resource endowments. Second of all, ending even the prospect of oil and gas development would cripple Alaska’s economy, take away a critical source of tax revenue, lower Alaskans’ standard of living, and make it more difficult for Alaska Natives to preserve their ways of life – and indeed to survive, in the words of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation’s Richard Glenn:
“The development of Arctic oil and gas resources provides our communities with the means to preserve our traditional way of life and culture while also allowing our residents to enjoy a greater quality of life. Put another way, our communities cannot survive without continued resource development in our region.”
Ironically, the oil and gas industry, made a villain by WWF, NRDC, and its affiliates, has historically conducted the kind of local consultation – rooted in the kind of respect – that these activist groups push in their letter. As part of developing their drilling plans, oil and gas companies operating in the Arctic solicit feedback from local residents on proposed operations, and they also incorporate traditional knowledge about the Arctic environment into their drilling plans.
The history of industry-indigenous collaboration is best captured by Alaska Natives themselves:
“North Slope leaders say that as a result of conversations with industry, they are convinced that development can be done safely, and that response and mitigation plans would be in place in case of any accidents.
[North Slope Borough chief administrative officer Jake] Adams [Sr.] said one way the oil industry won them over is by ensuring that whaling will not be impacted by exploratory drilling.
He described how Shell and other industry representatives have worked with Natives to understand the migration patterns and behavior of bowhead whales and other wildlife and altered their operations to protect the animals.
‘The process has been to sit down with them, work with them, talk to them about when they shouldn’t have any activities in the area, when we are going after whale,’ he said. ‘When we’re done, we notify them that we’re done for the fall and they can resume.’”
While activist talking points may be developed with considerably less rigor, the stringent regulatory apparatus – consisting of 12 federal agencies, 19 state agencies, and four local Alaskan agencies – that oversees Arctic drilling requires operators to consult with local communities when drawing up their drilling plans. For example, the sale of Arctic drilling leases to Shell in 2008 stipulated that the company must “consult directly with potentially affected North Slope subsistence communities” in order to “discuss potential conflicts with the siting, timing, and methods of proposed activities and safeguards or mitigating measures which could be implemented by the operator to prevent unreasonable conflicts.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regulations similarly require operators to consult with local subsistence communities concerning potential conflicts between drilling and subsistence activities.
Indeed, over the course of several years, Shell met with subsistence communities in Barrow, Wainwright, Point Lay, Point Hope, Kotzebue, and Deering and with subsistence groups including the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, the Nanuuq Commission, the Eskimo Walrus Committee, the Beluga Commission, the Ice Seal Commission, and the Native Village of Barrow. The company also held one-on-one meetings with representatives from the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, and the Village Whaling Captain Association.
Not only are local Alaskans consulted about Arctic drilling plans, but they actively participate in oil and gas operations as well, with their deep understanding of Arctic conditions playing an important role in keeping Arctic oil and gas development safe and responsible. As an example, Shell employed Iñupiats as Protected Species Observers (PSO), required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to be “aboard the drilling unit(s) and all transiting support vessels” to monitor the presence and behavior of protected species.
Shell also hired local subsistence advisers from Chukchi Sea villages to act as a bridge between local communities and the company, to identify and relay potential concerns and suggestions for improving operations. One such suggestion that Shell implemented was to change the color of its vessels from orange to blue in order to avoid disturbing marine species.
As they put it, WWF and NRDC are anxious to “ensure that a resilient Arctic remains intact for generations to come.” But their recommendations suggest that the Arctic of their dreams may be devoid of human life – including the Alaska Natives who have called the Arctic home since 6000 B.C. to 2000 B.C. That would be thousands of years before America came into existence. And for the Natives, the Arctic is “not a pristine snow globe that should be locked away in a museum of pretty places.”
The kind of unfounded, disrespectful, and opportunistic meddling by outsiders, exemplified by WWF and NRDC’s letter, is reviled by Alaska Natives, who have written:
“Outside environmental organizations look North and see opportunity. They view Alaska, particularly the Arctic, as a fundraising vehicle with endless possibilities. … As Iñupiat, the environmentalists and their thinly disguised fundraising efforts are viewed as an attack on the heart of our culture, coming from people who know little about life in the Arctic.”
The activists who claim to speak for the local communities across the Arctic should spend more time listening to those who actually live there.