The lively debate regarding offshore oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas leaves no one in any doubt about the level of concern in North Slope communities about the potential impacts of oil and gas development in the region. But, on the principle that facts form a better basis for informed discussion than anecdotal perceptions, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the North Slope Borough in 2000 asked the U.S. Minerals Management Service to fund some research into the cultural, social and economic impacts of the oil and gas industry on Alaska Eskimo subsistence communities.
MMS duly obliged and the agency has now published a research report called “Quantitative description of potential impacts of OCS activities on bowhead whale hunting activities in the Beaufort Sea.” And, as the title suggests, the research has focused on the potential impacts of offshore exploration and development on bowhead whale hunting, an activity that forms a core component of the subsistence culture of the North Slope Inupiat people.
In addition to quantitative information about the North Slope demographics and the views of North Slope communities, the report contains a wealth of descriptive material about how several communities incorporate whale hunting into their way of life.
AmbivalenceThe report also brings out the ambivalence between the obvious economic benefits that the oil industry has brought to the region and the community’s concerns that the industry may also be eroding cultural values.
“Oil and gas development is, in some respects, at the center of contemporary life on the North Slope, in ways both obvious and subtle,” the report says. “It is the only large-scale commercially viable natural resource-based development taking place on the North Slope today. It is the center of the private sector-driven portion of the regional economy, and is also central to the public sector portion of the economy through its role as the ultimate source of a very large part of regionally generated public revenues.
“… Despite its central importance to contemporary life on the North Slope, however, oil and gas development is very much seen as a double-edged sword, with issues of local versus non-local control over the shape of development of locally occurring natural resources at the fore, along with issues related to the social, cultural and individual/personal consequences of rapid development and associated socioeconomic change.”
And, because of worries about potential impacts on bowhead whale hunting, the perceived downside to industry activity has particularly come to the fore in relation to offshore exploration in the Beaufort Sea.
“On- and offshore development are different,” said one Barrow resident, according to the report. “Onshore there is less chance for contamination because they can control it. We can live with it onshore and work around its effects on our seasonal activities. Offshore it is a hostile environment with moving ice and heavy seasons. It is very risky. If they invade our hunting grounds, that is not acceptable to us because of the risk. Seventy-five percent of our food comes from the ocean. We get some of our food from the land, but the ocean is our garden.”
Whalers from the Beaufort Sea village of Kaktovik at the eastern end of the slope commented that “whales and other marine mammals are very sensitive to noises and unusual activities, and their behaviors are changed by oil exploration, development, and production,” the report said.
Structured surveysBut how widespread are these views and what is the general attitude of North Slope communities to offshore oil and gas industry activities?
To answer these questions the MMS-sponsored researchers carried out carefully structured surveys in Barrow, Kaktovik and Nuiqsut — Nuiqsut is on the Beaufort Sea coast in the central North Slope area, close to the Alpine field. And to obtain control data for comparison from a coastal community not currently impacted by the oil and gas industry, the researchers conducted identical surveys in the village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.
An analysis of the survey data showed that most residents in the four communities feel that their quality of life has stayed constant or improved over the past few years. And the majority of elders in the communities do not believe that their communities have become worse places to live. On the other hand, “a large percentage of Barrow elders are pessimistic about the trend in the quality of life in their community; this negative assessment is likely the result of a perceived lack of jobs, increase in substance abuse and crime, and erosion of traditional values,” the report says.
Deflect whalesAt the same time, whaling captains in the Beaufort Sea coast communities generally think that noise and disturbance from industrial activities deflect bowhead whales farther offshore than normal during the fall whaling season, when whales migrate west through the Beaufort Sea en route to their winter feeding grounds.
“However, changes in the spring bowhead migration pattern are largely attributed to climate change,” the report says.
In fact, in Savoonga where no oil and gas development has occurred, whaling captains have observed the whales arriving earlier during the spring migration and in increased numbers during the fall. Some Savoonga residents attribute these observations to climate change, but most people did not offer an explanation, the report said.
Of the whaling captains who responded to the surveys, 59 percent said that the oil and gas industry has a neutral or unknown effect on whaling. And although survey respondents commented on the impact on subsistence activities of environmental disturbance and problems such as alcoholism, the respondents also commented on the increased availability of jobs and higher household incomes, as well as increased tax revenues for social services and infrastructure construction, as a result of the oil industry’s presence.
But 69 percent of the whaling captains in the North Slope communities said that it is not possible to adequately safeguard the environment and “important cultural activities” against the potential impacts of offshore oil development. However, only 28 percent of Savoonga whaling captains indicated that outer continental shelf oil development is incompatible with environmental protection and cultural activities.
Can influence industryOn the other hand, survey data indicated that more than half of the whaling captains feel confident that their communities can influence both offshore and onshore oil and gas development, the report said. The researchers think that this optimism arises from a “perceived growing responsiveness by the oil industry to local concerns.”
“Conditions have been placed on offshore development. They (the oil industry) understand pretty well what we are doing out there. There is better communication with industry,” said Barrow and Kaktovik whaling captains, according to the report. “… Villagers have long expressed a preference for onshore development; the companies have become more adaptable and addressed village concerns such as reducing impacts on caribou migration.”
On the other hand, many whaling captains have expressed skepticism about the potential to influence the industry, the report says.
From the perspective of cultural change within the communities, quite a few of the village elders think that elder influence has diminished, although that view does not appear to be strongly held among the general populace of the North Slope villages. In addition, there is a continuing involvement in subsistence activities on the North Slope at about the same level as in Savoonga, despite the fact that economic prosperity has reduced the dependence on subsistence food to some extent on the slope.
The report concludes by recommending additional research into the changes in traditional values, knowledge and practices that have resulted from oil and gas development, and into the perceptions of young people in the communities. The researchers recommend an in-depth investigation of current levels of subsistence harvesting. The researchers also propose a North Slope Borough research plan that would enable the analysis of changes in community data over time.