Arctic Drilling Ruling Brings Hope to Native Villages, Subsistence Hunters

Hunters worry about marine mammals and a way of life, but there are also some mixed feelings as the Trump administration goes full bore on oil and gas drilling.

Martha Itta outside the Native Village of Nuiqsut office. Credit: Sabrina Shankman/InsideClimate News

Martha Itta, tribal administrator to the Native Village of Nuiqsut, was relieved by a judge's ruling on offshore drilling. Her community still faces pressure onshore from encroaching oil and gas drilling operations. Credit: Sabrina Shankman/InsideClimate News

If there is one place that has most felt the Trump administration's push to rapidly expand fossil fuel development, it might be Nuiqsut, a small village nestled on Alaska's North Slope.

The village has become almost entirely surrounded by oil and gas drilling over the past three decades, and the Trump administration has been aggressively pushing for more drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, just west of the village, and off the coast to the north.

"It's really overwhelming to try to keep up with everything that's going on," said Martha Itta, tribal administrator to the native village and also its vice mayor. She is one of a handful of people in the community trying to ensure the village has a voice as the federal government works to open offshore areas to drilling, rewrite the management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve and clear the way for companies to expand drilling. "There's a lot of times when we miss out submitting comments on projects or we didn't fully get to analyze what's being said and done in these projects," she said.

On Friday, a federal judge brought a rare wave of relief for Itta with a ruling that effectively halted plans for offshore drilling in much of the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.

More than three-quarters of the residents of Nuiqsut, a village of 400, live off the food they hunt and the fish they catch. In the fall, whaling crews travel more than 75 miles to Cross Island, and a successful hunt means ample food for the community. "The ocean is connected to our river, so our fish flow through there. Our whales. It's all connected," said Itta. "It would affect our diet and what we eat. Our way of life, pretty much."

"We were almost losing hope. It seemed like everything was going the way of the Trump administration, in favor of the industry and all who are involved," Itta said through tears. "We've been fighting for so many years and to hear such a decision is a really big deal to us."

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ruled on March 29 that President Donald Trump did not have legal authority to overturn orders by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, that put large areas of federally managed waters off limits to drilling in the Arctic and in parts of the Atlantic.

The Trump administration had been in the process of updating the nation's formal management plan for the Outer Continental Shelf nationwide when the ruling came down. That five-year plan provides a blueprint for fossil fuel development until 2022. It will replace an existing one from the Obama administration that had put 94 percent of the federal waters off limits to drilling. A draft of the Trump plan released last year had proposed opening 90 percent of the U.S. coastline to fossil fuel development.

Drilling operations are visible from Nuiqsut's main street. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

Onshore drilling operations are visible from Nuiqsut's main street. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

The judge's ruling puts the Obama-era protections for the Arctic and Atlantic areas back into effect, prohibiting leasing or even consideration of leasing in those areas, said Niel Lawrence, the Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management had already started reviewing proposals to conduct seismic testing across much of the eastern seaboard to help locate potential oil and gas reserves.

Asked how the offshore ruling might impact the five-year leasing plan, Interior Department press secretary Molly Block said she could not comment because of ongoing litigation.

[Update: On April 25, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the Trump administration would postpone its offshore oil drilling plans indefinitely while the ruling was appealed. ]

Map: Off-Limits to Offshore Drilling

Lawrence said it was tough to predict what this administration would do at this point. "I think they have shown that they're very comfortable ignoring legal constraints on their push to develop oil and gas," he said.

Concerns for Hunting, but Also Mixed Feelings

Herman Ahsoak, a whaling captain in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), called the offshore decision "a blessing." His big concern, he said, is that an oil spill would threaten the marine mammals that his family and community rely on for food.

"We've depended on the same mammals since time immemorial to sustain us," he said. "Hopefully the president will listen."

But he also acknowledged that others in his Inupiat community feel differently. Much of the revenue that sustains his community, as well as others in the region, comes from taxes on fossil fuel companies operating on the North Slope.

Herman Ahsoak. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

Herman Ahsoak is a whaling captain and subsistence hunter in Utqiagvik. He is a member of the Inupiaq, whose people have lived on the North Slope for thousands of years. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

During the Obama administration, when Shell planned to drill in the Chukchi Sea, the regional government created jobs to support the coming activity. When Shell's efforts failed and the company abandoned its plan for offshore drilling there, those jobs were eliminated.

Onshore Drilling Still Encroaches on Nuiqsut

Nuiqsut residents also have mixed feelings, though Itta said she believes the majority of people there are concerned about drilling.

The ruling on offshore drilling alleviates some of the fears that whaling would be affected. But fossil fuels development in the neighboring National Petroleum Reserve is just as concerning, she said.

The native village of Nuiqsut recently sued the Trump administration for failing to conduct an environmental review before approving a plan by Conoco-Phillips to expand its exploration program in the area. That plan involves the construction of nearly 70 miles of ice roads and up to 23 ice pads, as well as six new exploratory wells immediately adjacent to the village.

Map: Nuiqsut, Alaska, is surrounded by oil fields on the North Slope

The community fears the development could further impact its subsistence hunt, particularly the Teshekpuk caribou herd, which has already seen significant declines.

The administration is also working on a new integrated activity plan for the area, which dictates where drilling can happen and where lands need to be protected. "The projects are vital and sensitive to those of us who utilize these lands," said Itta.

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