Shell cancels 2014 Arctic drilling – Arctic Ocean & Inpuiat rights reality check

Today Shell announced it was canceling its 2014 drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. This is a guest blog by Faith Gemmill, Executive Director of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), on the court decision that forced Shell’s hand, and the Indigenous rights context behind it. 

By Faith Gemmill, January 30, 2014. Source: Platform London


Photo: Faith Gemmill/ REDOIL

Photo: Faith Gemmill/ REDOIL

Last week the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the US government violated the law when it sold offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska.  The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a coalition of Alaska Native and conservation groups.  Indigenous Plaintiffs included The Native Village of Point Hope, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), among numerous conservation groups.  EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, represented our groups.

REDOIL joined this lawsuit because we strongly uphold and promote the subsistence rights of Alaska Natives and offshore development poses a very real threat to those rights in relation to the Chukchi Sea and Inupiat subsistence and that is unacceptable.

This decision is one that we celebrate.  Although we’ve had legal victories in court skirmishes on this issue, we’ve been dealt political blows that favored Shell and ignored the rights of the Inupiat and their food security.  This is another opportunity for those in decision making positions to realize that offshore drilling in this region is too risky, not only to Inupiat subsistence but to this critical ecosystem.

Indigenous Peoples have always viewed human rights and a healthy environment as fundamentally linked. The careful management and protection of the Arctic environment is a requirement for the enjoyment of Alaska Native human rights, particularly as they relate to the “subsistence” or “traditional” economy.  Indigenous Peoples of Alaska have long fought for recognition of subsistence rights as a basic inherent fundamental human right.  The Inupiat of the North Slope of Alaska continue to live the ancestral subsistence way of life, which is dependent on a healthy ocean ecosystem.

This right is recognized and affirmed in the international covenants on human rights.  Article I of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights read in part:

In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.

Proposed offshore drilling of the Chukchi Sea puts subsistence rights and multi-national companies at odds.

Though the subsistence rights of Inupiat was not the foundation of the ruling, it puts the impacts to those subsistence rights on the table again, because the impacts to the natural habitat and ecosystem of subsistence resources needs to be analyzed once again, and you cannot separate environmental impacts from subsistence impacts, for they are the same.

In this recent win, the Court ruled that the Department of Interior failed to adequately analyze the potentially dramatic environmental effects of the sale before offering the leases.  It determined that the agency had analyzed

only the best case scenario for environmental harm, assuming oil development,

and that

[this analysis] skews the data toward fewer environmental impacts, and thus impedes a full and fair discussion of the potential effects of the project.

The agency will have to revise or supplement its analysis for the lease sale once again and must reconsider its lease sale decision.

We believe that the lease sale should be cancelled.  That would be the best decision that the US Government can make on this issue, for several important reasons.  First is the relationship that the Inupiat have with the Chukchi Sea and the resources it provides the communities for their food security.

Mae Hank, Inupiat grandmother from the community of Point Hope was happy with the decision

With this court ruling; it has given me a sense of contentment for now that we have prevented another intent to drill in nature’s abundance of our food resources. With whaling season coming in a few months we will worry not, my heart sings with joy for this ruling we know there is justice!

The Chukchi Sea is home to several important Arctic species such as polar bears, walrus, beluga whales, bowhead whales, and seals. Therefore the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean is critical to Inupiat subsistence lifestyle. These vital subsistence resources that are intrinsic to the livelihood of Inupiat within the Arctic Oceans are at risk from pollution, noise disturbance, and spills.  A major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean would be impossible to clean up and could have devastating consequences for the region’s ecosystem and communities.

Another factor to take into consideration is that Shell has proven that it has no capacity to drill in this region.  In 2012 the company suffered severe setbacks and mishaps—including running one of its rigs aground, almost running its other rig aground, and incurring pollution and safety violations exceeding a million dollars, with investigations still ongoing.  This should be taken into consideration, since the company itself suspended its program for 2013,acknowledging that it was not equipped to drill in this harsh Arctic region.

A final factor would be that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Indigenous communities in Alaska are already facing severe climate impacts. Why compound this with further oil extraction disrupting their food system?   Barack Obama should take action to show he is still committed to act on climate change for the sake of future generations.  The decision whether to affirm leases in the Chukchi Sea presents an important opportunity for the Obama Administration to take real and meaningful action to address climate change. He should cancel the leases and leave the oil in the ground under the sea, where it won’t spill or further warm the planet.  Humanity would benefit from a decision to cancel the leases, but also the Indigenous peoples of the North’s food security would be assured, and an inevitable oil spill accident would be avoided in this critical ecosystem that is home to many threatened Arctic species.


Faith Gemmill is the Executive Director of Resisting Environmental Destruction of Indigenous Lands (REDOIL)  REDOIL is a movement of Alaska Natives of the Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Tlingit, Eyak, Gwich’in and Denaiana Athabascan Tribes who came together in June 2002 in Cordova, Alaska to form a powerful entity to challenge the fossil fuel and mining industries and demand our rights to a safe and healthy environment conducive to subsistence.  REDOIL aims to address the human and ecological health impacts brought on by unsustainable development practices of the fossil fuel and mineral industries, and the ensuing effect of catastrophic climate change.  We strongly support the self-determination right of tribes in Alaska, as well as a just transition from fossil fuel and mineral development to sustainable economies and sustainable development.

The three core focus areas of REDOIL are:

  • Sovereignty and Subsistence Rights
  • Human and Ecological Health
  • Climate Change and Climate Justice

Follow REDOIL on Facebook

A Continent of Ice on the Wane



A whale-watching platform made of and sitting on sea ice north of Barrow. Photo by Ned Rozell.
A whale-watching platform made of and sitting on sea ice north of Barrow. Photo by Ned Rozell.

Despite taking up as much space as Australia, the blue-white puzzle of ice floating on the Arctic Ocean is an abstraction to the billions who have never seen it. But continued shrinkage of sea ice is changing life for many living things. A few Alaska scientists added their observations to a recent journal article on the subject.


By Ned Rozell | Geophysical Institute



Since 1999, the loss of northern sea ice equal to the size of Greenland is a “stunning” loss of habitat for animals large (polar bears) and small (ice algae and phytoplankton that feed a chain of larger creatures leading up to bowhead whales). So write the 10 authors that teamed to write “Ecological Consequences of Sea-Ice Decline,” featured in the August 2, 2013 issue of Science.

Eric Post of Penn State University, a former graduate student who studied caribou at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the lead author on the paper. When sea ice hit its minimum extent in the satellite era about a year ago, it got him thinking about how the loss of ice affects living things. That’s when Post, now the director of the Polar Center, rallied other contributors, from polar bear biologists to atmospheric scientists, to bring their results together.

“I think all of us as authors learned quite a bit about the importance of sea ice loss,” he said by email. “Individually, we each had a pretty clear idea of the implications of sea ice loss for certain parts of the arctic system, but none of us really grasped the full scope of the problem.”

Starting at the smaller end of things, the scientists point out that freshening of the Arctic Ocean caused by melting of sea ice may cause smaller types of plankton to thrive.

Arctic foxes, great wanderers of sea ice, will be limited by less of it, which would decrease the spread of rabies they sometimes carry from Russia’s mainland to Svalbard.

Walrus, which suck clams out of their shells with piston-like tongues, use sea ice as a resting spot between dives to the ocean floor. In recent years, people have seen more walruses using shorelines as haul-out spots; U.S. Geological Survey scientists counted 131 carcasses at one of these sites in September 2009. They wrote that the deaths, perhaps because of exhaustion or trampling, “appear to be related to the loss of sea ice over the Chukchi Sea continental shelf.”

In Canada’s arctic, “later freeze-ups and increased shipping traffic should shift or prevent the annual migration of the Dolphin and Union caribou herd,” the Science authors wrote. Parasites that feed off the caribou might increase because of this, but diseases spread by wandering caribou might decrease.

Polar bears need sea ice to hunt their favorite food, seals. As the sea ice shrinks, polar bears may be driven to land, where brown bears might outcompete them or hybridize with them.

The two UAF scientists who added to the report are Uma Bhatt, who studies the atmosphere, and Skip Walker, an expert on tundra plants. They have both done work to prove that the loss of sea ice has made the Arctic a greener place.

How might that happen? With less ice acting as a mirror for sunlight, the darker ocean absorbs more heat, which in turn warms the coastlines touching the Arctic Ocean. That warm air encourages plants to convert sunlight into growth at a higher rate and lengthens the growing season. Woody shrubs are becoming more numerous and taller, shouldering out smaller tundra plants. And the most extreme region of far north plants — a swath of bryophytes, lichens, blue-green algae and a few other non-woody species that make up what Russians call “polar desert” — seems to be headed for extinction.

The study helped lead-author Post envision northern sea ice as he would a great boreal forest or caribou herd scattered across an arctic plain.

“Sea ice is a living system,” Post said. “And not only does it harbor and sustain life, which is obviously affected by its loss, its disappearance influences the climate systems that affect life on other parts of the planet. We’ve come a long way in understanding how the loss of vast areas of mature tropical rainforest affects everything from indigenous cultures to species to ecosystems; our views of sea ice loss need to catch up with that understanding.”

Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

– See more at: