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BPing the Arctic

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This article originally appeared on TomDispatch. Listen to the author discuss how big oil will impact America's Arctic seas.

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About the Author

Subhankar Banerjee
Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, and activist. His first book, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons...

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Shell is getting ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, and while it’s not yet quite a done deal, the prospect should certainly focus our minds.

Bear with me. I’ll get to the oil. But first you have to understand where I’ve been and where you undoubtedly won’t go, but Shell’s drilling rigs surely will—unless someone stops them.

Over the last decade, I’ve come to know Arctic Alaska about as intimately as a photographer can. I’ve been there many times, starting with the fourteen months I spent back in 2001-2002 crisscrossing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—4,000 miles in all seasons by foot, raft, kayak and snowmobile, regularly accompanied by Inupiat hunter and conservationist Robert Thompson from Kaktovik, a community of about 300 on the Arctic coast, or with Gwich’in hunters and conservationists Charlie Swaney and Jimmy John from Arctic Village, a community of about 150 residents on the south side of the Brooks Range Mountains.

In the winter of 2002, Robert and I camped for twenty-nine days at the Canning River delta along the Beaufort Sea coast to observe a polar bear den. It’s hard even to describe the world we encountered. Only four calm days out of that near-month. The rest of the time a blizzard blew steadily, its winds reaching a top speed of 65 miles per hour, while the temperature hovered in the minus-40-degree range, bringing the wind-chill factor down to something you’ll never hear on your local weather report: around minus 110 degrees.

If that’s too cold for you, believe me, it was way too cold for someone who grew up in Kolkata, India, even if we did observe the bear and her two cubs playing outside the den.

During the summer months, you probably can’t imagine the difficulty I had sleeping on the Alaskan Arctic tundra. The sun is up twenty-four hours a day, and a cacophony of calls from more than 180 species of birds converging there to nest and rear their young never ceases, day or “night.” Those birds come from all forty-nine other American states and six continents. And what they conduct in those brief months is a planetary celebration on an unimaginably epic scale, one that connects the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to just about every other place on Earth.

When you hear the clicking sound of the hooves of the tens of thousands of caribou that also congregate on this great Arctic coastal plain to give birth to their young—some not far from where my tent was set up—you know that you are in a place that is a global resource and does not deserve to be despoiled.

Millions of Americans have come to know the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even if at a distance, thanks to the massive media attention it got when the Bush administration indicated that one of its top energy priorities was to open it up to oil and gas development. Thanks to the efforts of environmental organizations, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and activists from around the country, George W. Bush fortunately failed in his attempt to turn the refuge into an industrial wasteland.

While significant numbers of Americans have indeed come to care for the Arctic Refuge, they know very little about the Alaskan Arctic Ocean regions—the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea (which the refuge abuts).

I came to know these near-shore coastal areas better years later and discovered what the local Inupiats had known for millennia: these two Arctic seas are verdant ecological habitats for remarkable numbers of marine species, including endangered Bowhead whales and threatened polar bears, Beluga whales, walruses, various kinds of seals, and numerous species of fish and birds, not to mention the vast range of “non-charismatic” marine creatures we can’t see right down to the krill—tiny shrimp-like marine invertebrates—that provide the food that makes much of this life possible.

The Kasegaluk lagoon, which I spent much time documenting as a photographer, along the Chukchi Sea is one of the most important coastal treasures of the entire circumpolar north. It is 125 miles long and separated from the sea only by a thin stretch of barrier islands. Five icy rivers drain into the lagoon, creating a nutrient-rich habitat for a host of species. An estimated 4,000 Beluga whales are known to calve along its southern edge, and more than 2,000 spotted seals use the barrier islands as haul-out places in late summer, while 40,000 Black Brant goose use its northern reaches as feeding grounds in fall.

In July 2006, during a late-evening walk, wildlife biologist Robert Suydam and I even spotted a couple of yellow wagtails—not imposing whales, but tiny songbirds. Still, the sight moved me. “Did you know,” I told my companion, “that some of them migrate to the Arctic from my home, India?”

Can Oil Be Cleaned Up Under Arctic Ice?

Unfortunately, as you've already guessed, I’m not here just to tell you about the glories—and extremity—of the Alaskan Arctic, which happens to be the most biologically diverse quadrant of the entire circumpolar north. I’m writing this piece because of the oil, because under all that life and beauty in the melting Arctic there’s something our industrial civilization wants, something oil companies have had their eyes on for a long time now.

If you’ve been following the increasing ecological devastation unfolding before our collective eyes in the Gulf of Mexico since BP’s rented Deepwater Horizon exploratory drilling rig went up in flames (and then under the waves), then you should know about—and protest—Shell Oil’s plan to begin exploratory oil drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas this summer.

On March 31, standing in front of an F-18 "Green Hornet" fighter jet and a large American flag at Andrews Air Force Base, President Obama announced a new energy proposal, which would open up vast expanses of America’s coastlines, including the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, to oil and gas development. Then, on May 13, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit handed a victory to Shell Oil. It rejected the claims of a group of environmental organizations and Native Inupiat communities that had sued Shell and the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) to stop exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic seas.

Fortunately, Shell still needs air quality permits from the Environmental Protection Agency as well as final authorization from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar before the company can send its 514-foot drilling ship Frontier Discoverer north this summer to drill three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and two in the Beaufort Sea. Given what should by now be obvious to all about the dangers of such deep-water drilling, even in far less extreme climates, let’s hope they don’t get either the permits or the authorization.

On May 14th, I called Robert Thompson, the current board chair of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL). “I’m very stressed right now,” he told me. “We’ve been watching the development of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf on television. We’re praying for the animals and people there. We don’t want Shell to be drilling in our Arctic waters this summer.”

As it happened, I was there when, in August 2006, Shell’s first small ship arrived in the Beaufort Sea. Robert’s wife Jane caught it in her binoculars from her living-room window and I photographed it as it was scoping out the sea bottom in a near-shore area just outside Kaktovik. Its job was to prepare the way for a larger seismic ship due later that month.

Since then, Robert has been asking one simple question: If there were a Gulf-like disaster, could spilled oil in the Arctic Ocean actually be cleaned up?

He’s asked it in numerous venues—at Shell’s Annual General Meeting in The Hague in 2008, for instance, and at the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromsø, Norway, that same year. At Tromsø, Larry Persily —then associate director of the Washington office of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and since December 2009, the federal natural gas pipeline coordinator in the Obama administration—gave a twenty-minute talk on the role oil revenue plays in Alaska’s economy.

During the question-and-answer period afterwards, Robert typically asked: “Can oil be cleaned up in the Arctic Ocean? And if you can’t answer yes, or if it can’t be cleaned up, why are you involved in leasing this land? And I’d also like to know if there are any studies on oil toxicity in the Arctic Ocean, and how long will it take for oil there to break down to where it’s not harmful to our marine environment?”

Persily responded: “I think everyone agrees that there is no good way to clean up oil from a spill in broken sea ice. I have not read anyone disagreeing with that statement, so you’re correct on that. As far as why the federal government and the state government want to lease offshore, I’m not prepared to answer that. They’re not my leases, to be real honest with everyone.”

A month after that conference, Shell paid an unprecedented $2.1 billion to the MMS for oil leases in the Chukchi Sea. In October and December 2009, MMS approved Shell’s plan to drill five exploratory wells. In the permit it issued, the MMS concluded that a large spill was “too remote and speculative an occurrence” to warrant analysis, even though the agency acknowledged that such a spill could have devastating consequences in the Arctic Ocean’s icy waters and could be difficult to clean up.

It would be an irony of sorts if the only thing that stood between the Obama administration and an Arctic disaster-in-the-making was BP’s present catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

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