Once viewed by practitioners of Western science as a belief system rather than a body of knowledge, the millennia old wisdom of the traditional Inupiat people of northern Alaska has become increasingly incorporated into the planning and decision making associated with oil and gas projects.
“The North Slope Inupiat have been in the forefront in asserting the critical value of traditional knowledge in industry decisions,” Joan Kluwe of URS Corp. told an audience at the Arctic Energy Summit Technical Conference in Anchorage in October.
The turning point in attitudes came about as an aftermath of an International Whaling Commission 1977 decision to place a moratorium on bowhead whale hunting, because the commission thought that the whale population had reached a critically depleted level, Taylor Brelsford, URS senior environmental scientist, told the conference audience. The moratorium threatened the traditional subsistence hunting of the Inupiat people, who immediately questioned the commission’s data.
The commission had estimated the Beaufort Sea whale population to be about 1,000 but the Inupiat whaling captains thought that the population was in fact in the order of 6,000 to 7,000, Brelsford said.
The North Slope Borough embarked on a multi-year science research program using sonar and acoustic research equipment and determined that the bowhead whale population was closer to 8,000, thus vindicating the whalers’ views and enabling the traditional subsistence whale harvest to continue.
“Each successive year of additional scientific research by the North Slope Borough verified a population that grew closer and closer to what the whaling captains had estimated at the beginning,” Brelsford said.
The acoustic monitoring also confirmed the whaling captains’ understanding that whales swam under the ice and could break through the ice to breathe — scientists had thought that whales only swam through open leads between ice floes.
Based on community experienceSo, what exactly is traditional knowledge?
“Traditional knowledge is recognized as an observation based structure of information accumulated by communities from direct experience … over a long period of time,” Brelsford said.
The Inupiat’s profound knowledge of natural phenomena such as weather, ice, landforms and the natural history of animals derives from the subsistence lifestyle and culture of Arctic Alaska.
“Successful harvest practices are intimately tied to this understanding about the natural environment,” Brelsford said. “To hunt effectively they have to know the locations where animals are available or in prime condition.”
But, in common with other Native cultures, knowledge of the environment also ties into other aspects of the culture, including a major emphasis on stewardship of the environment and the minimization of waste. Alaska Native communities view the subsistence harvest as a gift from the natural world to people — people must be respectful of nature’s gifts to enjoy continued good luck as hunters.
Increasing involvementThe issues surrounding the International Whaling Commission and the estimates of the bowhead whale population led to the formation of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, a formal institution for whaling captain leadership, Brelsford said. Since the 1980s the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission has negotiated conflict avoidance agreements with industry for offshore seismic activities.
And residents of the North Slope Borough have attended at least 70 public meetings concerning oil and gas leasing, to present testimony based on traditional knowledge, Brelsford said. Inupiat residents have been able to comment on potential damage to the oil and gas infrastructure resulting from Arctic ice and storms. Residents have also raised questions regarding the feasibility of cleaning up offshore oil spills, especially in broken ice conditions. And the potential for seismic operations and other industrial activities to disturb animals has also been a major concern.
“People insisted that the operation of seismic exploration and other oil and gas operations be regulated to avoid disturbance to the animals,” Brelsford said.
From the mid-1990s MMS explicitly included traditional knowledge in its environmental impact statements, Brelsford said. Then, in 1999, the preparation of the environmental impact statement for the development of BP’s Northstar field in the Beaufort Sea demonstrated how traditional knowledge could be incorporated into oilfield development decision making, he said.
“It was one of the first EISs where you will see an entire chapter on traditional knowledge, describing how the consultants and agencies worked with the communities to focus on this,” Brelsford said. “… You can actually see changes in the design of the project that are based upon the input of Inupiat elders, in particular the protections against storms and ice override.”
In 2001 an MMS researcher collated all of the traditional knowledge testimony gathered to date into a 4,500-page document for future reference. But debate continues regarding whether the permitting process adequately considers traditional knowledge, Brelsford said.
In the onshore arena, the Bureau of Land Management consulted with communities such as the village of Nuiqsut in its environmental review of leasing programs in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. BLM established a subsistence advisory panel to ensure the monitoring and regulation of the impacts of seismic operations on subsistence hunting, Brelsford said. But concerns remain about the standards of environmental protections in the 2006 environmental impact statement, he said.
“That’s a matter of continuing discussion and dispute in the region,” he said.
On another front, BLM has established the North Slope Science Initiative, an organization that tries to forge a common science agenda between state and federal agencies. NSSI includes a technical working group on traditional knowledge, Brelsford said.
North Slope BoroughThe North Slope Borough regularly uses traditional knowledge in setting permit stipulations such as the pipeline clearances required for caribou passage. The borough has also implemented the use of subsistence representatives who work with seismic crews, to advise on technical issues such as ice strength and to act as a conduit to provide information about the seismic activities back to the villages, Brelsford said.
In 2005 the borough started development of an oil and gas plan to address issues such as the aging oil infrastructure in the central North Slope and the impact of a potential expansion of infrastructure across NPR-A.
“In large part the borough is very much an advocate, a supporter, of oil and gas development onshore, but they do want to minimize the impact to traditional ways of life and subsistence resources,” Kluwe said. “… The oil and gas … plan is directing attention to improving the use of traditional knowledge in environmental management and development decisions.”
And, as part of the plan development, the borough organized a traditional knowledge workshop in Anchorage in September. That workshop attracted more than 40 participants from industry, government agencies, research organizations and non-governmental organizations, as well as from North Slope Borough departments, Kluwe said. Recommendations from the workshop reflected a desire for improved collaboration and communication between industry and North Slope communities, accompanied by greater efficiency in communications protocols — for example some communities feel overwhelmed by the number of consultative meetings and duplication of some information gathering efforts.
Some workshop attendees also raised concerns about whether the procedures associated with the National Environmental Policy Act provide an appropriate forum for incorporating traditional knowledge into business decisions and said that traditional knowledge is often lost at the higher levels of decision making.
Oil and gas summitIn September Mayor Edward Itta of the North Slope Borough convened an oil and gas summit in Barrow. More than 200 people from a wide spectrum of organizations attended the summit, to discuss issues relating to oil and gas development in the region.
“The borough recognizes that oil and gas is key to its economic prosperity but there is also great fear, especially in offshore environments, that there is too much happening too soon, too fast,” Kluwe said. “… The borough seeks science-based decisions to protect resource and the way of life.”
So where does all of this leave the place of traditional knowledge in oil and gas development decision making?
“Traditional knowledge research has matured over the years and has effective methods and well established protocols for community partnership. Environmental documents continue to show improved recognition of traditional knowledge,” Kluwe said. “The North Slope Borough, state and federal agencies and industry have achieved successes in incorporating traditional knowledge into field practices. However, the Inupiat remain concerned that traditional knowledge is not given sufficient weight in some energy decision making.”