By Arslan Ahmad
With growing support from the Obama Administration, aggressive lobbying, and attempts at diplomacy with Alaskan natives, the Shell Oil Company is doing everything in its power to increase offshore drilling near Alaska – something that would inevitably spell disaster for both local wildlife and the Inupiat Eskimo tribe inhabiting the region. But with all the obvious risks, it’s just not worth it.
|Photo courtesy NOAA
The region of the Arctic Ocean off the shore of Alaska is, without a doubt, important to a wide variety of groups. However, it is apparent that each of them has a different vision for its future. The Shell Oil Company, a leading multinational corporation dealing in the production of oil and natural gas, in addition to the sale of gasoline, is eager to exploit the shores of Alaska for its oil through the process of offshore drilling. In opposition to Shell’s bold prospects, environmental advocates and concerned Alaskan residents claim that these invasive drilling procedures would undeniably threaten the delicate ecosystems contained within this region. Although many of the inhabitants living in the proposed vicinity of the drill site – namely, the Inupiats – depend on the production of oil for employment purposes, they also see the ocean itself as a source of food and a cultural treasure.
Alaska is a state that has relied on oil production for over 50 years, and it is only behind Texas and North Dakota in terms of total oil and gas production in the entire United States. This provides certain Alaskan residents with special benefits, such as employment in the oil industry, exemption from state income taxes, and annual subsidies of $5,000 per family of four from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a company primarily supported by oil revenues. In 1989, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, public opinion of oil production and drilling among local Eskimo tribes changed drastically. These apprehensions persist to this day, and have only been bolstered by the more recent Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation’s largest and most serious oil-related catastrophe to date. Many of the tribe’s members relied on the Arctic Ocean and its whale communities for food, and they began to worry that offshore drilling, along with the associated risk of a major spill, would disturb the whales and force them to relocate elsewhere.
Bowhead whales are already an endangered species, with a dangerously low population of only 10,000. Their numbers have been reduced over the years due to irresponsible practices such as illegal whaling, as well as by rising global temperatures that melt and destroy their natural habitats. As a species, they would be in great danger if offshore drilling were to be allowed near their homes. Any sort of aquatic drilling operation could drive them away due to noise, and they would be at a greater risk of colliding with the equipment or ships – a situation that would be dangerous for both the animals and the workers involved. Whales feed by taking in large quantities of water and filtering out the food they need, so if a spill were to occur there is a significant chance they could ingest the oil and suffocate. These majestic creatures are an integral part of Inuit culture in the area, as well as a source of subsistence for them. Risking their lives for oil should not be a real possibility.
Polar bears, an iconic species symbolizing the plight of endangered species worldwide, also reside in this part of the Arctic. For this reason, they are also in danger of being affected by offshore drilling. The survival of this species depends entirely on the suitability of their habitat. Like bowhead whales, polar bears have also been forced to deal with melting ice caps due to global warming. An oil spill would double the danger they are already in. Polar bears cannot properly regulate their internal body temperatures if their fur is covered with thick oil, and any of the oil that they accidentally consume due to grooming or preying on other oil covered animals could prove fatal.
In addition to bowhead whales and polar bears, others species such as ice seals, beluga whales, and walruses also thrive in this area of the world. They would all be in great amounts of danger if Shell’s drilling plan were to come to fruition. These species are already losing their home to the effects of climate change, so another danger heaped on top of the ever-present threat of melting ice caps is entirely unwelcome and unnecessary. Their homes are being attacked on all fronts.
|Photo courtesy of Kristjan Laxfoss/KUCB
Shell’s plan is already in motion, and two of its drilling ships in the Arctic today. President Obama, having been incessantly pressured by fossil fuel industry lobbyists over the course of the campaign year, has already shown support for the plan. There is no question, however, that what Shell proposes to do is extremely risky. The region of the Arctic Ocean around Alaska is known to be especially tempestuous and unpredictable, and such a remote region of the world is harder to reach in the event of a disaster. Also, Arctic ecosystems are known to be some of the least resilient in the world in terms of withstanding catastrophic events.
In a recent statement, Captain J.J. Fisher of the U.S. Coast Guard explained that an oil spill in the Arctic would be a “nightmare scenario”, since workers would have to work in extreme weather conditions with limited resources – and cleaning up oil in ice-covered waters would be an extremely difficult task even in optimum conditions.
With such an extensive list of risks involved, is the oil really worth it? Not only would a spill damage the ecosystem and the livelihood of the Inupiat tribe – it would also further damage Shell’s tarnished reputation. It is a fact that neither Shell nor experts like the Coast Guard are equipped to handle such a disaster if it were to occur. For this reason, it seems to be in everyone’s best interest not to allow them to go through with their plan. The fate of the Arctic and its valuable wildlife is balanced on this decision.