Inupiat will pay the price, so must guide Arctic decisions, lead Alaska to diversify economy

Shell's announcement last week that it is leaving its Arctic prospects off Alaska's coast for the foreseeable future is a disappointment for many throughout the state.

Shell's decision sparks more angst about the economic difficulties facing all Alaskans, but for the Inupiat on the North Slope, it also highlights fundamental human rights issues.

Shell pointed to burdensome federal regulations, but whether or not these were key to the company's decision to leave, it is indisputable that in the coming decades more regulations and other global forces far beyond Alaskans' control will make drilling in the Arctic even more unlikely.

The world has agreed that global warming must be kept below 2 degrees Celsius on average to avoid catastrophic effects on humanity, and this December in Paris, countries are likely to agree on binding commitments to reduce fossil fuel emissions with an aim of keeping within this goal. Assessments from economists and scientists estimate that around 75 percent of already proven fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground if the Earth's warming is to stay within 2 degrees.

Whether anyone in Alaska thinks this is necessary or advisable is beside the point. The global political and economic forces behind this movement are unstoppable.

These global commitments will result in regulations that eventually lead to a reduced demand for oil. The efforts and expense of new oil exploration, such as in the Arctic Ocean, will become less and less appealing as the long-term future of the oil business dies out. Eventually, this will be true for on-shore development, as well.

The people of the North Slope will be some of the first to feel the economic hardship of a changing energy economy. What's ironic is that they are also experiencing some of the greatest negative effects from climate change.


Like a textbook case of colonialism, the Western world's voracious appetite for fuel created an oil-dependent Inupiat economy and, through climate change, set in motion irreparable damage to the Inupiat ecosystem. Now, that same world's regulatory response to climate change will hit hardest on the Native communities so dependent on an oil economy.

This disproportionate impact violates fundamental human rights of equality and nondiscrimination. The transition to a new energy economy must be just. This issue receives far less attention in the international climate change negotiations than reducing emissions does, but it is just as important.

A just transition means that human rights must not be sacrificed in the scramble to stem global warming. The new laws created in response to global warming must acknowledge and provide for those disproportionately affected by the regulations, such as the Inupiat. In addition, the new economic opportunities created by the emerging clean energy economy must be shared equitably with those same people.

For this to occur in Alaska, the people of the North Slope must be active agents of the change that is underway, not passive victims of it. The state and federal government must provide the Inupiat with meaningful participation in shaping the future post-petroleum economy of Alaska, and the Inupiat must take advantage of those opportunities and become leaders in helping the state create this diversified economy.

Alaska is not the only political entity facing the economic risks resulting from the end of a fossil fuel economy, and the state should look to other petroleum-dependent economies that have started to address this risk. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has crafted a long-term economic plan to diversify its economy.

With another oil bonanza increasingly unlikely to save Alaska from its current or future fiscal woes, the state must do more to recognize and prepare for the inevitable future. Preparing for a reduced dependence on revenue from fossil fuels is in the entire state's best interest. It is also a human rights obligation the state owes to the Inupiat of the North Slope who will suffer doubly as climate change undercuts their subsistence economy and efforts to stop it undermine their oil-dependent one.

Layla Hughes is an attorney and independent Arctic policy consultant whose clients have included conservation and Alaska Native groups. She wrote this commentary of her own volition, not for a client. She is a former North Slope Borough assistant borough attorney and was a member of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission. She currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Layla Hughes

Layla Hughes is an attorney and independent Arctic policy consultant. She is a former assistant borough attorney for the North Slope Borough and was a member of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission. She currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland.