“This is good: now that we’ve got an adult with us, we can walk along the beach!” said the 9-year-old Inuit girl.
“Erm, why do you need an adult to walk along the beach?” I asked tentatively, wondering what I’d committed myself to when agreeing to hang out with the bunch of kids who’d been watching Nickelodeon in the cafe where I was eating lunch.
“In case there are polar bears,” she replied nonchalantly, slurping her garish blue Slush Puppie and flicking her hair behind her head.
We were in the tiny village of Wainwright, Alaska, roughly 70 miles from the northernmost city in the United States, perched on the coast where the great expanse of tundra that covers Alaska’s North Slope meets the chilly Arctic Ocean. The sea ice had begun its springtime melt and three or four whaling crews had towed their boats using snow-machines across the land-fast ice to the patch of dark blue water that had opened up a mile or so from the shore. The rest of the village’s inhabitants had tuned into channel 12 on the CB radio to listen for updates from the whalers, pausing in their work or play occasionally to scan the sea through their binoculars, looking for tell-tale spouts of water.
I couldn’t help gazing out to sea. I’d never seen an ice-covered ocean before and something about it fascinated me: the way it had grown a temporary topography during the dark winter, the frozen layer exhibiting a kind of plate-tectonic behaviour, pushed and pulled by currents and tides, leaving not a smooth landscape but one of ridges and fissures.
In the 19th century, whales were hunted in large numbers by non-indigenous commercial whaling boats, in what one Alaska Native described to me as the North Slope’s first “offshore oil rush.” The blubber was boiled to extract oil that, in turn, was burned in lamps. Commercial whaling (as distinguished from indigenous people’s subsistence whaling) has been illegal for some time now, but these days there is talk of a new offshore oil rush on the horizon. Decreasing Arctic sea-ice coverage and relatively high global energy prices have been drawing drillships northward in search of the fossilized hydrocarbons thought to lie beneath the sea bed.
I had been drawn north too, intrigued by the media narratives of an inevitable “opening up” of the Arctic. I was travelling around Alaska to research the decisionmaking process that determines whether or not drilling will happen in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas; to learn about who makes those decisions, whose views are considered, and which factors are seen to be important. I have so far interviewed more than 40 people from a variety of backgrounds: oil companies, the Alaska legislature, federal and state agencies, environmental organisations, and Alaska Native institutions.
Hours of analysis and writing await me in the coming academic year, so it would be rash of me to announce any conclusions just yet. I do, however, want to share one thought. The urban Alaskans from Anchorage and Juneau often alluded to the “bind” or difficult situation in which people up on the North Slope find themselves. Since oil began to flow from the onshore area around Prudhoe Bay in the 1970s, the villages dotting the Arctic coastline have become accustomed to a parallel flow of benefits in the form of greatly improved public services, infrastructure, and cash. Now that the onshore fields are producing less, some hope that offshore drilling could fill the gap and ensure the continued flow of cash to the local economy.
At the same time, there is great concern for the wellbeing of the bowhead whales that are seen as essential to those communities’ food security, social practices and cultural heritage. Whales might be harmed or pushed away by the noise of drilling, seismic testing, or perhaps the mess of an oil spill – not to mention the impacts of fossil-fuelled climate change on the region as a whole, which indeed were not often mentioned by many of my interviewees but which are increasingly documented in scientific literature.
No one seems to know a satisfactory way out of this apparent tension between the need for ecological integrity and the need for cash. People in the south sigh and shake their heads in pity at the situation of those in the north. Yet it seems to me that the tension on the North Slope is but an early indication of a condition that exists globally, in a world whose leaders declare their countries to be “addicted” to fossil fuels but whose security is undermined by the extraction and combustion of those very materials – due principally to global warming but also to more locally felt environmental impacts. Understanding the politics, policies and decisions that surround fossil fuel extraction is important not just for Arctic inhabitants but for us all.
Amy Mount, a joint-degree master’s of environmental management and international relations student, is studying the politics of offshore drilling in Alaska.