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The Many Lives of ANWR Oil Drilling in the Alaskan Arctic

On December 22, 2017, President Trump authorized oil and gas development in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on the North Slope of Alaska. The measure was passed with the ostensible goal of raising money for the federal government and encouraging economic development. Drilling in the Refuge has faced criticism because of the damage that industrial infrastructure and potential oil spills could inflict on animals and the landscape. ANWR is an important habitat for polar bears, migratory birds, whales, and caribou, which many Native Alaskans rely on for food.

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Kaktovik, a predominantly Native Inupiat village of 300 people, is situated on two-mile-wide Barter Island on the northern shore of the 1002 area in which drilling has been authorized. While feelings are mixed, many residents support oil development because of the economic benefit to the community. Others are concerned that oil drilling will mar the landscape and harm animals that are valuable for food and an attraction for a budding tourism industry. Oil lease sales are slated to begin as early as next year.

This summer, I traveled to Kaktovik to take pictures and speak with people about the community's thoughts on oil development. The photos show some of the landscape of ANWR and the animals that live there, as well as a sense of life in Kaktovik.

One commercial airline flies to Barter Island — a small island on the northeastern Arctic coast of Alaska. The weather makes flights unpredictable and dangerous, especially in the winter. Unreliable flights make medical emergencies more dangerous; according to my guide, a man once died because his pacemaker battery failed, and he could not fly out to a hospital to replace it.
The view of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the descent into the Kaktovik Airport. The coastal plain retreats to the Brooks Range in the distance. Oil exploration has been authorized in most of the land in this photograph.
Kaktovik is a village of around 300 people, 80% of which are native Inupiat. The area was an important regional trade center until the early 1900s when it became a stop for commercial whalers, but buildings were still made out of sod. The construction of the Distant Early Warning Line missile detection system during the Cold War and later the discovery of oil in nearby Prudhoe Bay spurred the development of the village in the 1970s. The primary employer is the North Slope Borough, with jobs in city government, public works, and education. The Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation is the other major employer in the community. Subsistence hunting, fishing, and whaling remain a large part of the economy.

My trip to Kaktovik lasted four days, and during that time I spoke with many residents of the community about oil development. Opinions were mixed. On one hand, jobs and oil dividends are attractive to a community that has limited sources of income and harsh living conditions.

But other residents, along with environmentalists and scientists, are worried oil development will be catastrophic for the landscape and the many animals that call ANWR home.

More than 200 species of birds live in ANWR, and their migrations take them across the continental US and to six continents. Owls, swans, ducks, and eagles are among the birds that will be affected by oil development. The coastal plain is also the nesting ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is vital for subsistent hunters and culturally significant to Native Alaskans like the Gwich'in and Inupiat.
In addition to disrupting animals, oil development could have serious consequences for the landscape of ANWR. The marshy land of the coastal plain is particularly vulnerable to contamination in the event of an oil spill. Many scientists are worried that oil would quickly disperse across the landscape and be nearly impossible to clean up. Kaktovik is one of the only settlements on the North Slope of Alaska where oil rigs are not visible in the water. My guide thinks that the first oil drilling in ANWR will happen offshore.

So What's Next?

Over the course of the summer I spoke with scientists, anthropologists, photographers, government employees, and residents of Kaktovik about oil development in ANWR. The arguments against drilling are compelling; countless species of animals will be affected, from whales to caribou to polar bears to birds. The landscape will be strewn with roads and drilling infrastructure, and oil rigs likely will be visible off the shore. Nevertheless, many of the people who live in Kaktovik support oil development. It is more important than ever to include residents in the decision-making process, as it is their lives who will be most affected.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is, at its core, public land, and everybody has a right to voice their opinions about its fate. Congress has ordered the Department of the Interior to hold the first oil lease sale by the end of 2021, but the Trump administration is keen to expedite the process. Yet according to a 2017 representative survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 70% of American voters oppose drilling in ANWR.

Despite the administrative pressure, there is still time to make your voice heard, either by contacting your representative or voting in the 2018 midterm election on Nov. 6. Every vote counts, and every opinion is meaningful in a discussion about what happens to our land.

Created By
Colton Stevens
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