Indigenous people in Alaska are facing the difficult problem of reconciling development with native traditions. After a delay of several years, the Minerals and Management Service (MMS) of the U.S. government has finally given Royal Dutch Shell the rights to drilling in Camden Bay in the Beaufort Sea. Provided it obtains the necessary permits from a variety of federal agencies, beginning next summer, Shell will be able to drill two new wells in the areas covered by the leases it purchased during the Bush administration for the leasing period 2002-2007. The company originally proposed to drill twelve wells rather than two, but environmentalists are still upset over the decision and a lawsuit is expected.

An attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, Brendan Cummings, was quoted in the Anchorage Daily News as saying, “Obama could have installed Sarah Palin as Secretary of Interior and the polar bear and Arctic ecosystem would be no worse off than it is under Ken Salazar.”

In the actual approval (PDF), the MMS concluded that:

“Shell has demonstrated that its oil and gas exploration drilling activities will be scheduled and will be located to prevent unreasonable conflicts with subsistence activities in compliance with Lease Sale 195 and 202 Stipulation 5.

Shell, for instance, will cease all oil and gas activities on August 25, 2010 in order to let the annualbowhead whale migration to pass through the area. In addition, the oil company will have “manned aerial monitoring…marine mammal observers, real time acoustical recorders, and site specific sound source verification to confirm acoustic safety zones prior to commencement of drilling activities.” The indigenous Nuiqsut and Kaktovik communities, however, are still worried that the new drilling activities will have a negative impact on their whaling activities.

Map of Bowhead Whale Migration
Map of Bowhead Whale Subsistence Sensitivity

News Links

“Shell gets conditional OK for Beaufort drilling,” Anchorage Daily News

“Arctic offshore drilling plan cleared for Beaufort Sea,” Los Angeles Times

“Shell Wins Offshore Drilling Rights in Alaska,” The New York Times


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the difficulties which the Nenets are facing due to the gas development projects throughout the Yamal Peninsula in northern Russia. Now, the Guardian reports that the Nenets people are facing new hardships brought about by melting permafrost. Some of the anecdotal evidence offered by the Nenets interviewed for the article are that temperatures are now only 30 degrees below zero, rather than 50, the reindeer have trouble walking through muddy, sludgy ground in spring, and their opening of their annual migration is now postponed until December, rather than November. Even polar bears are spotted more frequently, particularly near human developments. This sadly means that the animals are likely starving and looking for food.

The director of Greenpeace Russia’s energy unit, Vladimir Tchouprov, is quoted as saying, “It’s an indication of the global warming process, like the opening of the Arctic waters for shipping this summer.” But many other Russians, as the article points out, are skeptical of global warming. Even if they do believe in it, many only see the bright side: easier access to natural resources, which will no longer be frozen under hard permafrost.

Categories: Indigenous Peoples

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