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Subsistence concerns over Arctic development dominate marine mammal talks

Ben Anderson
A boat sits on the shore near the Northwest village of Wainwright, on Alaska's Chukchi Sea coastline. Ben Anderson photo

Royal Dutch Shell may have called off its plans to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic seas this year, and ConocoPhillips may plan to not even begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea until 2014, but people aren’t forgetting about Big Oil’s designs on offshore development in the warming Far North.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Open Water Meeting on Thursday, local stakeholders repeatedly voiced their concerns to representatives from both companies -- even if it strayed from the intended agenda of the meeting.

In particular, residents of subsistence-based communities like Kivalina and Shishmaref expressed worries that the plan to drill in the Arctic could disrupt, or even destroy their traditional way of life. Along the way, they implied that the companies weren’t taking traditional knowledge into consideration in their Arctic development plans, while the companies defended themselves by saying they were taking an active role in fostering relationships with Arctic communities and listening to their input.

During a discussion on ConocoPhillips’ intended marine mammal management plans, Colleen Swan of Kivalina stood up during a question and answer session to address a panel of biologists and Mike Faust, Chukchi Program Manager for ConocoPhillips.

Swan said that she appreciated ConocoPhillips and the fact that the company had come to Kivalina, and some of the things the company was doing with its marine mammal observation plan. But she wondered if the company was taking the community input to heart.

“Whatever happens to those comments you get?” She asked during a five-minute question that revolved around community concerns and the importance of subsistence in her home village.

“If you don’t work with the community (and the) people, if you continue to have an impact on our ability to feed our families, there’s going to be a fight,” she said.

Faust tried to emphasize that ConocoPhillips was indeed listening, and that there were many steps being taken to accommodate the needs of subsistence hunters with the company’s Arctic agenda.

“Over the past four years,” Faust said, “I can tell you that the plan has changed pretty significantly over that four year period in many ways, because of that feedback we’ve gotten in the communities and the kind of observations that the hunters and whalers have told us about.”

He pointed to the construction of a four-mile road to helipads in order to minimize the noise in the community from helos, and said that the company would adjust the air route to its rigs based on animal behaviors in the area at any given time. He also said that ConocoPhillips would be returning to Kivalina for more community meetings in “a couple of weeks.”

Time to learn

ConocoPhillips’ plans aren’t yet finalized, either, with their Chukchi Sea drilling season currently anticipated for 2014. During a presentation on marine mammal observations, biologist Lisanne Aerts said that there was still time to learn more.

“It’s really good that we are here because I want to make sure that people understand that this is not drilling in 2013, but 2014,” Aerts said to a crowded room at the Egan Center in Anchorage during her presentation Thursday. “So you have really, really a lot of time to plan for this. And I’m actually happy it’s not 2013, because we would only have like, maybe two months or so to take into account the feedback that we get and that would not be very much to really ... implement any changes to the plan.”

Shell heard much the same tune, even though its drilling program is farther along, getting under way last year. The company announced last week that it would not be drilling in 2013 due to a series of high-profile mishaps with its two primary drilling units, the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk.

The agenda for the day showed Shell presenting for 45 minutes on its plans for 2013, though the actual presentation took much less time, given last week’s sudden change to the company’s schedule for the Arctic.

Shell Alaska Science Team Lead Michael Macrander said that the company still had plans for the Arctic, but those would be subject to change pending permitting processes and other potential hurdles. But, he added, the company still has interest in Alaska’s Arctic.

“I think the main thing I can say about that is that we, Shell, have not lost our appetite for exploration in the Alaskan offshore,” he said. “There are a number of operations and activities that we have been pushing off into future years in able to be able to focus on drilling for 2012 and 2013. So as we speak, there are literally conversations going on about other activities that we might be able to do this year.”

Uncertain future

But, as Macrander said later, “You might imagine the situation, the announcement was made last week that we were not going to be drilling, so now there’s a lot of ‘well, what can we accomplish this year?’ And a very important piece of what can we accomplish dialogue is ‘can we get the permits?’ So a lot of these discussions may die on the vine pretty quickly.”

Daniel Lum, a former resident of Barrow, asked how Shell plans to mitigate any potential oil-spill disaster that could negatively affect the bowhead whale populations that several Arctic coast communities rely on for subsistence needs, especially in light of past problems like the grounding of the drill rig Kulluk on New Year’s Eve.

“Has Shell even thought about that?” he asked. “What is the plan there?”

“Again, this is a bit of a different discussion that what we’re here primarily to talk about, but I’ll answer your question,” Macrander said. “I think we constantly learn, and we learn in a lot of ways. We learn from unfortunate events that occurred in the past ... but there are a lot of things that have been learned in terms of the effects of things like oil spills, the ways to protect resources from being exposed. Those are all part of our drilling scenarios that we’ve conducted with federal agencies.”

That didn’t seem to be good enough for Lum, who asked that Shell prove to concerned residents that the company would be capable of mitigating an oil spill. He called the company’s current plan “unacceptable.”

“Where else are we going to have a forum to discuss this?” he asked.

When Lum had finished, the moderator reminded audience members that the meeting was intended to be regulatory in nature. Instead, it had apparently played out, for three days, more like an airing of grievances from those who felt they weren’t being listened to -- or who felt they had lost their voices altogether.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com