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Point Hope

Royal Dutch Shell has received the preliminary permits to drill off Alaska’s arctic coast in 2012, but the final go ahead is still yet to be confirmed. Freelance journalists Kajsa Sjölander and Will Rose visited Alaska’s north-western coast and the Arctic community of Point Hope who have delayed Shell´s offshore plans in court.


An elderly man grills hamburgers outside the building where the annual elders picnic is held. “Conoco Phillips have sponsored us with these burgers,” he informs while charring them. The American oil company is among the winners if the Hague-based Shell get the final required drilling permits to expand into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Conoco Phillips hope the decision will lead the way for them to also win approval to develop federal leases in the Arctic.

Apart from the odd news crew or documentary team from time to time, the oil companies have been the only ones constantly showing their presence in Point Hope during recent years. As part owner of Trans Alaska pipeline, BP will also benefit from offshore oil being pumped through their infrastructure. A BP beach bag and blanket are among the top pickings in the elders picnic raffle this day. There are many powerful parties that will win in short term from the development, including the state of Alaska and the residents of the North Slope Borough.

A Shell commissioned study by consulting company Northern Economics and the University of Alaska Anchorage, estimate $176 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues will be generated over a 45 year period till 2057. $3.7 billion of that total will go to the the regional body of the North Slope Borough, the state of Alaska will collect $4.8 billion while the federal government will receive the first prize of $161.3 billion.

Retired ex City Mayor Ronok Oviok sits on the floor inside the elder’s building looking bemused at his new prize, a tent. An anonymous donor sponsored the raffle with the item. “If the oil companies ever find oil in our ocean, we'll never see a dollar. The last few years they've been coming to talk to us. They say the jobs will be there if they find oil. All these promises to our people are always said but they never come true,” says Oviok.

If Shell get the go ahead it could set a path for drilling huge oil reserves in controversial Arctic waters, but various legal challenges have put the oil giant’s plans on hold. The tribal government of Point Hope backed by a group of twelve environmental organisations have delayed Shell receiving their prize. By challenging the validity of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement’s conditional approval of Shell’s exploration plan, the decision has now been delayed in the court. The petition states that the BOEMRE decision violates the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The court will accept the final petitions just before Christmas, on the 19th of December.  “Shell tell us they have the equipment to clean up an oil spill. I was not born yesterday, I know the conditions out there,” says Caroline Cannon, who has fought the plans for over five years as President of Point Hope tribal government. “They can never clean an oil spill here, they lie to us. There is no infrastructure along this coast,” she continues.

Since 2005 Shell has spent an estimated $4 billion in preparation. The total includes permits, government-ordered studies, research, legal costs and possibly even a few burgers.

"There is reason to be optimistic that our permits will survive a court challenge," Royal Dutch Shell's vice president in Alaska, Peter Slaiby told Petroleum News on the 30th of September. Shell are expecting to announce if they will continue with preparations to drill in 2012’s open water season this month. The U.S. Coast Guard, The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (US FWS) have all yet to authorize the drilling operations safety zone and incidental take of wildlife such as whales and polar bears.  Shell state they have adequate capability to clean up an oil spill in Arctic waters. “They lie to us, saying they can clean up 95 percent of any oil spilled”, says Caroline Cannon.

The future of the native Inupiaq now stands at a crossroads between continued benefits from industry generated revenues and protecting the marine environment they have depended on for thousands of years. The fear of an oil spill damaging the whale, which is the cornerstone of the native culture, has split the communities of Alaska’s north. “The whale and other animals here make us who we are, they’re our clothing, our shelter, our food and our spirituality. A way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years,”  says Steve Oomittuk, mayor of Point Hope.

The city has 160 households with approximately 800 residents. To the east, a nine kilometre road stretches into the arctic tundra and ends abruptly. The sense of remoteness is acute, it is an isolated place only possible to access via the sea or air. Flying over the city, it is not hard to understand why they call their homeland Tikigaq, which means `Pointed finger´ in their native language. The Inupiaq hunters settled here over two thousands  years ago as the promontory afforded an advantageous hunting point. The sand and gravel peninsula juts out into the path of the migrating bowhead whale, but now into the path of Shell’s planned offshore drilling site in the Chukchi sea.

This small Arctic society has a rich and long history as one of the oldest continually occupied sites in North America. The Iñupiaq are still dependent on the distribution and movement of game, especially the bowhead whale, caribou and seal for their survival. “Without the animals, we aren’t who we are, we are not the people of Point Hope. That is why we fight so hard to protect it”, says Steve Oomittuk during a guided tour of Tikigaq. He takes us to the shrinking north coast of Point Hope. The retreating sea ice causes more open water and with it, more powerful and destructive waves. “We have lost 200 yards to the sea in just a couple of decades. The whole village had to be moved in the 1976,” says Steve, pointing at an abandoned rusty bulldozer.  “That one was used building up the shore to protect our village in the 70´s. But it broke down, just there”, he says.

Despite the impacts of climate change being present all around, the importance of oil to the communities of the North Slope Borough is profoundly clear. The fear in lost revenues as the oil in Prudhoe Bay declines has played part in weakening the local opposition to offshore. “Ten years ago all our people were against offshore drilling. Now it is different, but the majority are still saying no,” says Johnny Aiken, executive director of Alaska Eskimo Whaling commission.

Dorkus Rock who works part time for the Shell sponsored comms centre in Point Hope can’t see that anything will stop the oil companies. Rock welcomes the offshore plans if the the people receive promised and much needed jobs. “They will always be looking for the oil. And you know, it is not really the oil companies, it is the MMS who sell the lands and waters to them. You cant predict an oil spill but if it happens it will be a very sad day,” she says. The US Minerals Management Service, MMS, was created in 1982 to manage offshore drilling and other forms of mineral exploitation. MMS employees welcomed gifts and gratuities from four major oil and gas companies whom they were supposed to regulate. Due to scandals of gross corruption the White House reacted by changing the agency's name to BOEMRE in 2010.

The city hall where Dorkus works is quiet this day. The scattered remains of the previous night’s Bingo are accompanied only by the faint murmur of computers and phones from the offices above. It is here Shell hold their regular meetings. “I always attend, but tell them I am opposing their plans. The last year they have pushed the meetings constantly,” says Caroline Cannon and continues. “They try to bribe people in a way by providing door prizes in the village meetings, but there is also money involved.”

One of the examples Shell has given in presentations to the community in the city hall, is their North Sea operations. The Hague based company have cited their ability to drill in the harsh conditions as an example of how they are prepared for the Arctic, but with the spill in the North Sea still reverberating, Shell have remained quiet and kept their presence in the area minimum.

See also

Whaling in the shadow of oil. Alaska, U.S.

Shell's plans to drill offshore in the Alaskan Arctic has divided the native communities of the North Slope Borough. The tense run off battle in the Borough elections reflected a community that is torn by the proposed offshore development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Alaska's Arctic people now stand at a crossroads between continued benefits from industry generated revenues and protecting the marine environment they have depended on for thousands of years

Stranded Bears. Alaska, U.S.

As the Arctic sea ice retreats over 700 miles from the shore in the autumn, bears must either head north or swim south to land as the ice breaks up. The amount of polar bears coming to land is increasing but scientists are still unsure of the single cause. In recent years, bears have spent a longer period onshore, during which they are cut off from their natural seal prey and scientists anticipate that the number of bears onshore may increase as sea ice loss continues.


Project overview featuring pictures from 70° in Russia, Greenland and The United States.

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