The oil industry set out this summer to drill exploratory wells in the remote Arctic seas off Alaska’s northern coast. In a public radio documentary airing on stations nationwide through early November, reporter Elizabeth Arnold takes listeners north of the Arctic Circle to hear from the people who will feel the impacts of oil development firsthand.
Iñupiat Eskimos have lived in northernmost Alaska for thousands of years, hunting, fishing, and depending on the bounty of the Arctic Ocean. “Really, when you think about it, how many people grow up with their front yard being a 2,000-year-old ancient village?” asks Qaiyaan Opie, a Barrow, Alaska, mother of two. The traditional subsistence way of life is “the heart of our family,” she tells Arnold. “It is who I am and where I come from.”
Henry Huntington, the Pew Environment Group’s Arctic science director, describes such traditions as a source of cohesion for the Iñupiat, what’s held them together through dramatic changes.
“You often hear people referring to themselves as people of the whale,” he says. “There’s a tremendous sense of community around this.”
Barrow residents talk to Arnold of feeling torn between the economic benefits of development and the risks—to the ocean and coastlines, to wildlife, and to their traditions—posed by drilling.
Marilyn Heiman, who directs Pew’s U.S. Arctic work, tells Arnold, “What we’re looking to do is ensure there are Arctic standards that every company operating in the Arctic has to meet, and hopefully set a model for other countries. And at the same time, say there are just some places in the Arctic Ocean that are too special, and they need to be protected and off limits to drilling.”
The story closes by noting that Barrow residents face development in both their front and back yards—on land and in the ocean. “For most Americans, the risks and consequences of energy consumption are vague and distant,” Arnold points out. “But here in Barrow, the push to drill in the Arctic Ocean is as real as the rigs that will soon be on Qaiyaan’s horizon.”
After a series of setbacks and missteps, Shell Oil announced in mid-September that it would not be ready to drill into potential oil-bearing zones until at least next summer, assuming it overcomes this year’s problems and receives final federal permits. For now, its drill rigs and support vessels remain in Arctic waters doing preparatory work through October.
The segment on the Arctic is part of the two-hour program “BURN: An Energy Journal,” produced by Peabody Award-winning SoundVision Productions in partnership with American Public Media’s “Marketplace” with a grant from the National Science Foundation. The “BURN” radio special is hosted by veteran journalist Alex Chadwick and was distributed to 600-plus stations across the country. Each station will decide how and when to air the documentary between now and Nov. 6, so please check your local listings. Or, listen to the Arctic episode here.