The North Slope Borough and Shell are collaborating on a multiyear program of scientific research into the offshore Arctic environment, the two organizations announced Oct. 28. Shell is providing $2 million in funding for the research in 2010 and 2011 — the organizations said they hope the program will eventually expand to include other private or government entities.
The North Slope Borough has long been concerned about the potential impacts of offshore development on the environment and on the subsistence hunting that underpins the culture of the Arctic communities.
“This program will add significantly to our understanding about the wildlife species and the ecosystem, of conditions at the front end of the development process,” said North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta in announcing the new program. “It will also increase our capacity to review and analyze a wide range of data. … We in the North Slope Borough have banked on good science as being the foundation for making good decisions for both industry and for the permitting agencies, and also for us as the North Slope Borough.”
Slaiby: extremely significant“This is an extremely significant agreement,” said Pete Slaiby, vice president of Shell Alaska. “It will allow both the North Slope Borough and Shell to pursue the same goal — quality, independent science through collaboration. We look forward to working with North Slope communities to build on the extensive baseline science work that has taken place over the last 30 years.”
A steering committee with representatives from Shell, the borough and from the coastal villages of Wainwright, Barrow, Point Hope, Kaktovik and Nuiqsut will determine what specific research the program will include, with four independent scientists nominated by Shell and selected by the borough also participating in that committee, Itta said.
Stronger voiceThe idea is to give the villages a much stronger voice in the direction of the research, and to encourage the use of traditional knowledge and the consideration of subsistence issues in the program, Slaiby said. Studies could cover a wide range of topics that people consider important, he said.
“This agreement will … allow the communities to really have a say in what matters for them and what kind of science is important to them,” he said.
Itta said that North Slope residents worry not just about offshore oil and gas development but also about issues such as the impacts of climate change and seawater acidification on the wildlife that lives in the ocean. It makes no difference whether you list an animal as threatened or endangered; the loss of organisms at the bottom of the food change will result in all wildlife disappearing, he said.
And Slaiby said that scientific data gathered by the program could help provide the necessary basis of understanding of the offshore environment, in the event that offshore exploration leads to oil and gas development.
“There is no question that this is an unprecedented step on the part of Shell and the North Slope Borough,” Itta said. Collaboration will help “create a relationship where we can find a middle ground when we need to.”