As oil companies line up with plans for exploratory drilling in the Alaska Arctic offshore, North Slope residents are expressing heightened concern about the risk of damage to the marine wildlife that underpins the subsistence way of life of coastal Native communities.
At the National Marine Fisheries Service’s annual Arctic Open Water meeting on March 8, following a talk by Mike Faust, ConocoPhillips’ Chukchi Sea exploration project manager, about his company’s Chukchi Sea exploration plan, Harry Brower, vice chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, expressed views re-iterated by other North Slope residents at several points during the course of the meeting.
Faust had told the meeting about some of ConocoPhillips’ plans for preventing or containing an oil spill, and had said that the Environmental Protection Agency had approved the company’s plan to discharge some waste into the Chukchi Sea under the terms of a general National Pollution Elimination System permit. Both EPA and ConocoPhillips view the permitted waste, such as water-based drilling mud, as not posing any risk of environmental damage.
“My concerns are the resources that we depend on for subsistence,” Brower said. “When you’re talking about the discharge of your effluents and drilling muds into the ocean, that just raises a flag for me and I have to voice a concern.”
Brower said that he understands the nation needs energy, and that the need for energy is as real as the North Slope communities’ need for the subsistence resources that they have depended on for thousands of years.
“I’m not trying to stop the drilling or stop the activity. I just want to make you aware that there are concerns,” Brower said.
Those concerns particularly revolve around discharges into the ocean from industrial activities and the possibility of oil being spilled into the water, he said.
“These are real things that are being put into the ocean that the resources that we depend on for food are going to be swimming through,” Brower said. “What are the impacts then to the resources that we hunt?”
Faust told Brower that he appreciated these concerns. ConocoPhillips is moving towards Chukchi Sea drilling at a slow pace, to allow time to address issues such as those raised by North Slope residents, he said.
“We will not discharge anything harmful,” Faust said, adding that his company would continue to work with the North Slope communities to clarify exactly what that commitment means.