Expert Voices

Arctic Drilling Risks Threaten Inupiat Traditions (Op-Ed)

Beaufort Sea arctic ice reaches new low
Melting ice on the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic. The summer extent of the ice reached a record low in 2007, and by one measure, it has now surpassed that low. (Image credit: Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, NOAA Corps (ret.)/NOAA, Dept. of Commerce)

Frances Beinecke is the president of NRDC, served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, and holds a leadership role in several environmental organizations. This Op-Ed was adapted from a post on the NRDC blog Switchboard. Beinecke contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Earlier this summer, I walked along the spit of land where the Chukchi Sea meets the Beaufort Sea at the top of Alaska. As our group looked out at pack-ice sculpted by wind and water currents, our local guide told us about the Inupiat whaling crew captained by his grandmother. Such crews use small sealskin boats, and when he was a young boy, he sat at the back, but as he grew in seniority, he moved up toward the front where he could shoot the harpoon. The community hosts games to strengthen people's hunting skills, and whenever one of the 40 whaling crews gets a bowhead, they work together to pull the whale ashore and share the riches.

These traditions have nurtured families and sustained Inupiat culture for thousands of years. Even today, the traditions provide one of the community's main sources of food for the year. But these traditions depend on healthy oceans, plentiful bowheads and predictable migration routes, all of which are threatened by proposed oil and gas drilling just offshore.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of the Interior held its first Arctic offshore-lease sale in nearly 20 years. Shell bought leases for the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, but its crews experienced one fiasco after another, such as fleeing a 30-mile-long iceberg, having emergency equipment "crushed like a beer can" and grounding a rig in a winter storm. Shell's debacle revealed a simple truth: oil companies are no match for the Arctic Ocean.

Society does not have to sacrifice these pristine waters. People can make a different choice.

As oil companies go to the ends of the earth to sink their wells, Americans can say we do not want to expose every wild place to reckless industrialization. Instead, we recognize that some places are too special to drill. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are two of those places.

The Chukchi is a bountiful ocean world. Its long shallow floor allows shellfish and other small prey to thrive, which in turn creates a smorgasbord for walrus, seals and gray whales. The Chukchi is also home to roughly half of America's polar bears. The Beaufort's coastline along the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, meanwhile, is designated as critical habitat for that threatened species and is also a migration route for bowhead whales.

Introducing industrial activity into the region would put many of those animals in peril. Whales rely on sound to find food and mate, for example, yet energy companies fire enormous air guns to identify fossil fuel deposits. Those guns produce noises that can reach 250 decibels — a level that can rupture human eardrums and cause serious injury or death for whales.

A spill in those waters would be even more devastating. I visited during the summer, when the sun shone around the clock, but most of the year the region is gripped by darkness, gale-force winds, dense fog and destructive storms. The closest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles from the drill sites, and the nearest back-up supply of spill-response gear is 2,000 miles away in Seattle.

Even if crews could get equipment on site, no technology has been proven to clean up oil in Arctic waters. A spill could linger for many years, because oil breaks down more slowly in cold water than it does in warm water. And the winter-long descent of pack ice would make clean-up flatly impossible much of the year.

Imagine if those risks were hanging over your pantry or your supermarket. That's how some Inupiat feel. People I spoke to said that many community members oppose offshore drilling because they know it threatens their dependence on bowhead whales and seals. Whatever their views about onshore development, allowing drilling in fragile ocean waters is a line they don't want to cross.

It is time to protect the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas while they are still pristine and still sustaining families and wildlife. The Outer Continental Shelf leasing program deferred final decisions about additional leasing in the Chukchi until 2016 (and the Beaufort a year later). But preliminary work on the leases will begin this fall. That means those of us who recognize the risks posed by such drilling have have to get busy now to persuade the Obama administration to remove the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from the lease program.

Several Inupiat leaders have opposed drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Even some oil companies changed their plans to drill in the Arctic once they witnessed Shell's failures. Now the Obama administration needs to hear from concerned citizens everywhere that the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are too precious to drill.

This Op-Ed was adapted from "Drilling in Wild Arctic Seas Threatens Cultural Traditions and Marine Life" on the NRDC blog Switchboard. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.