Iñupiat Hunting Community Divided Over Shell Drilling in Chukchi Sea off Alaska

Iñupiat Hunting Community Divided Over Shell Drilling in Chukchi Sea off Alaska

ICTMN Staff
10/4/12

The Iñupiat Eskimo community of Wainwright, Alaska is conflicted. Some of the 550 residents see the prospective oil boom just offshore in the Chukchi Sea as a source of much-needed jobs and economic hope. Others fear they are being exploited for their resources, reported the Los Angeles Times.

The indigenous people of this icy town on the Arctic coast have lived off the land for thousands of years. It is where they hunt for rainbow smelt, bowhead whale, beluga and walrus in winter and sometimes fall, and for caribou and bearded seals in summer.

But the discovery of a large undersea pool of oil in the Chukchi Sea has lead to an influx of people trying to convince the community of the vast riches just offshore. They come with food and lofty promises, but many villagers are skeptical that the community will reap any benefits.

"We just need to stop them, but we can't," Sandra Peetook, who manages the small, now fully booked hotel in Wainwright, told the Los Angeles Times. "They're not worried about our land or how we get our food or how we feed our people. They are just worried about what they are going to drill out of the oceans."

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) announced on August 30 that Shell has been granted permission to do limited, experimental drilling in the Chukchi Sea. Shell has spent $4.5 billion procuring a fleet of drill ships and response vessels. In September, Shell Oil began preliminary drilling, although it did suspend drilling for two weeks due to encroaching sea ice and to repair a damaged oil spill containment dome. The oil giant instead prepared wells by digging as many “top holes" as possible—partial wells that it expects to revisit and complete next year. The company will not be able to drill deep enough to reach oil this year; the dome must be fixed.

But changes are full steam ahead in Wainwright, which now houses a two-story workers camp. The once downtrodden town is seeing rise to new houses and some residents are taking on new jobs as oil spill response workers.

Shell has awarded 26 indigenous-owned companies construction and oil services contract, such as Olgoonik.

"We do it because we will not be successful in Alaska if the communities we work in are not," said Shell Alaska Vice President Peter E. Slaiby.

But fourth-grade teacher Edna Ahmaogak sees things differently: "The people who've attended the meetings have asked, 'What's going to be the benefit to us? What about our schools, what about housing?' There is no answer. They just come here and they give us food and think that's going to suffice.

"Are we going to have helicopters overhead, scaring away our herds?" she continued.

Among Ahmaogak's and the community's many concerns, an omnipresent fear of a disaster like the BP oil spill devastating the small community hangs over their heads.

"If there's an oil spill, what about our whales, what about our bearded seals? Are they going to give us those?" Ahmaogak asked. "Or are they going to give us cold sandwiches?"

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