The first oil rush in Arctic waters

This isn’t the first time that America’s Arctic seas have been exploited for oil. If you want to know more, check out John Bockstoce’s book, Whales, Ice, and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic. Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, commercial whalers regularly ventured into those seas to kill Bowhead whales for whale oil, used as illuminant in lamps and as candle wax. It was also the finest lubricating oil then available for watches, clocks, chronometers, and other machinery. Later, after petroleum was discovered, whale baleen became a useful material for making women’s corsets.

In 1848, when the first New England whaling ship arrived in Alaska, an estimated 30,000 Bowhead whales lived in those Arctic seas. Just two years later, there were 200 American whaling vessels plying those waters and they had already harvested 1,700 Bowheads.

Within 50 years, an estimated 20,000 Bowhead whales had been slaughtered. By 1921, commercial whaling of Bowheads ended as whale oil was no longer needed and the worldwide population of Bowheads had, in any case, declined to about 3,000 — with the very survival of the species in question.

Afterwards, the Bowhead population began to bounce back. Today, more than 10,000 Bowheads and more than 60,000 Beluga whales migrate through the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The Bowhead is believed to be perhaps the longest-lived mammal. It is now categorized as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and receives additional protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. It would, of course, be unforgivably ironic if, having barely outlived the first Arctic oil rush, the species were to fall victim to the second.

Inupiat communities have been hunting Bowheads for more than two millennia for subsistence food. In recent decades, the International Whaling Commission has approved an annual quota of 67 whales for nine Inupiat villages in Alaska. This subsistence harvest is deemed ecologically sustainable and not detrimental to the recovery of the population.

My first experience of a Bowhead hunt in Kaktovik was in September 2001. After the whale was brought ashore, everyone — from infants to elders — gathered around the creature to offer a prayer to the creator, and thank the whale for giving itself up to, and providing needed food for, the community. The muktuk (whale skin and blubber) was then shared among community members in three formal celebrations over the year to come — Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Naluqatuk (a June whaling feast), two of which I attended.

Inupiat cemetery.Inupiat cemetery with Bowhead jawbones, Kaktovik, 2001.Photo: Subhankar BanerjeeIn 2007, with writer Peter Matthiessen I visited Point Hope and Point Lay, two Inupiat communities of about 1,000 inhabitants on the Chukchi Sea coast. Point Hope is considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America. At Point Lay, we accompanied Bill and Marie Tracey on a 17-hour boat ride during a Beluga whale hunt. After the whales were beached, four generations gathered in a circle to offer prayer and thanks to the whales. In other words, for such Alaskan Inupiat communities whales are far more than food on the table. Their cultural and spiritual identity is inextricably linked to the whales and the sea. If Shell’s vessels head north, the question is: How long will these communities survive?

And it’s not just whales and the communities that live off them that are at stake. Oil drilling, even at a distance, has already taken a toll in the Arctic. After all, the survival of several Arctic species, including polar bears, walruses, seals, and sea birds, is seriously threatened by the widespread melting of sea ice, the result of climate change (caused, of course, by the use of fossil fuels).

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In addition, millions of birds use the near-shore Arctic waters, barrier islands, coastal lagoons, and river deltas for nesting and rearing their young in spring, and for feeding in summer before they start migrating to their southern wintering grounds. When the Arctic wind blows in one direction, nutrient-rich fresh water from the rivers is pushed out into the ocean; when it blows in the other direction, saltwater from the sea enters the lagoon. This mixing of fresh and saltwater creates a nutrient-rich near-shore ecological habitat for birds, many species of fish, and several species of seals.

All this is my way of saying that if oil drilling begins in the Arctic seas and anything goes wrong, the nature of the disaster in the calving, nesting, and spawning grounds of so many creatures would be hard to grasp.

Don’t let Shell’s drilling ship head north

With the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico ongoing, scientists are beginning to worry about hurricane season. It officially begins on June 1 and doesn’t officially end until November 30. Any significant storm entering the Gulf would, of course, only exacerbate the disaster, moving oil all over the place, while hindering clean-up operations. Now, think about the Arctic Ocean, where blizzards and storms aren’t seasonal events, but an all-year-round reality and — thanks (many scientists believe) to the effects of climate change — their intensity is actually on the rise. Even in summer, they can blow in at 80 miles per hour, bringing any oil spill on the high seas very quickly into ecologically rich coastal areas.

On May 5, Native Village of Point Hope and REDOIL joined 14 environmental organizations in sending a letter to Interior Secretary Salazar. In light of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it urges him to reconsider his decision to allow Shell to proceed with its drilling plan. That same week, Secretary Salazar did finally order a halt to all new offshore drilling projects and asked Shell to explain how it could improve its ability to prevent a spill — and, if one happens, to respond to it effectively in the Arctic.

On May 18, Shell responded publicly that it would employ a pre-made dome to contain any leaking well and deploy chemical dispersants underwater at the source of any oil leak. From what I gather, both methods have been attempted by BP in the Gulf of Mexico. The dome has so far failed, developing hydrates and becoming unusable before ever being placed over the leak. Scientists now believe that those toxic chemical dispersants have resulted in significant ecological devastation to coral reefs and could be dangerous to other sea life. None of this bodes well for the Arctic.

There is, I’m beginning to realize, another crisis we have to face in the Gulf, the Arctic, and elsewhere: How do we talk about — and show — what we can’t see? Yes, via video, we can see the gushing oil at the source of BP’s well a mile below the surface of the water, and thanks to TV and newspapers we can sometimes see (or read about) oil-slicked dead birds, dead sea turtles, and dead dolphins washing up on coastlines.

But what about all the other aspects of life under water that we can’t see, that won’t simply wash up on some beach, that in terms of our daily lives might as well be on Mars? What’s happening to the incredible diversity of marine life inhabiting that mile-deep water, and what cumulative impact will all that still-spilling oil have on it, on the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico, and possibly — in ways we may not yet be able to imagine — on our lives?

These are questions that desperately need to be asked and answered before we allow oil ships to head north and drilling to spread to America’s Arctic Ocean. Keep in mind that there, unlike in the temperate and tropical oceans where things grow relatively fast, everything grows very slowly. On the other hand, toxins left behind from oil spills will take far longer to break down in the frigid climate. Bad as the Gulf may be, a damaged Arctic will take far more time to heal.

Whatever we can’t see, what we already can see on the front pages of our newspapers and in the TV news should be more than enough to convince us not to take seriously the safety claims of giant oil companies desperate to drill under some of the worst conditions imaginable. Send those drill rigs into Arctic waters and, sooner or later, you know just what you’ll get.

If the remaining permits are approved for Shell in the coming weeks, the Frontier Discoverer will be in the Chukchi Sea less than six weeks later.

President Obama and Secretary Salazar should stop this folly now. It’s important for them to listen to those who really know what’s at stake, the environmental groups and human rights organizations of the indigenous Inupiat communities. It’s time to put a stop to Shell’s drilling plan in America’s Arctic Ocean for this summer — and all the summers to come.