The coming months are a critical time for our Arctic communities, as President Obama’s administration will soon finalize the next five-year plan for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and determine if offshore lease sales will be included in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. While environmental groups warn Washington about the dangers of including the leases, few outsiders seem to give thought to the consequences of not including them.
As someone who was born, raised and lives in Arctic Alaska, and therefore stands to be most affected by decisions regarding drilling off our coast, I want to offer a more localized perspective on this important issue.
Alaska relies on the oil and gas industry for nearly 90 percent of its unrestricted revenue. Directly inland of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the North Slope Borough is almost entirely reliant upon oil and gas taxation to provide essential services to its rural communities. With critically low throughput into the trans-Alaska pipeline system, declining onshore production and low oil prices, the state is suffering from a multibillion dollar budget deficit that has led to substantial layoffs across the state.
Should the Obama administration decide to remove all or part of the Arctic from the next five-year oil and gas leasing plan, it would mean there would be no prospect of even exploring for offshore reserves until at least 2023 and, with long lead times, production could be delayed until the 2030s or beyond. This reality threatens not only the economic well-being of Alaska, but also the sustainability of our Arctic communities, the Native Iñupiat people and our traditional ways of life.
The environmental activists argue that the industry cannot operate safely in Arctic waters. To drive home the point, The Wilderness Society and other ENGO’s claim that “a supplemental environmental impact statement for one Arctic Ocean sale estimated that there is a 75 percent chance of one or more major spills.” The government agency they cite is the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and this is what they actually found.
Using a hypothetical scenario involving eight platforms and more than 500 wells producing 4.3 billion barrels of oil over the course of 77 years — the most likely number of spills is one. While the effects of an oil spill in the Arctic should not be minimized, this is hardly the doom and gloom picture offshore opponents are painting.
The truth is, dozens of wells were safely drilled in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the 1980s and 1990s, using equipment and technology nowhere near as sophisticated as what’s available today. Oil and gas companies have poured millions of dollars into research and monitoring in the Arctic since then, providing new information about environmental conditions and spurring new drilling technologies and advancements to improve on already successful Arctic offshore efforts.
Another popular argument used by anti-oil groups is the notion that the current low price of oil is a valid reason to forgo future exploration. Arctic offshore projects take decades to reach development, and with the next lease sales not expected until 2019, there is absolutely no way to feasibly predict what type of price environment will exist. The only certainty is that limiting Arctic leases now will limit future opportunities.
Finally, outside special interest groups voice concern over the future health of marine habitat, citing Native subsistence resources as a reason for taking OCS development off the table. The trouble is that today we live in a cash economy, even in the Arctic, and responsible oil and gas development is crucial to maintaining our traditional Native way of life. We need jobs, a strong economy and a healthy ecosystem to live and survive as our ancestors did.
We live in a unique environment — one that has blessed me and my people with bountiful subsistence resources and rich oil and gas reserves. These resources have coexisted for decades and can continue to provide us with both traditional subsistence lifestyles and the cash economy we need to support our families.
President Obama once said: “When we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders, when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day, when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down.”
The Iñupiat of the Arctic Slope are paying attention, and we deserve a strong voice and opinion when it comes to offshore development in our own back yard. I respect anyone’s right to support or oppose this issue, and simply ask the administration to make an informed decision that balances environmental protection with responsible resource development.
• Anthony E. Edwardsen is chairman of Arctic Iñupiat Offshore. He is also president and CEO of Ukpeagvik Iñupiat Corporation, an Alaska Native corporation based in Barrow.
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