Oil & Gas
The Beaufort and Chukchi seas on Alaska's northern coast comprise one of the most unique Arctic marine ecosystems in the world. These Arctic waters provide habitat for bowhead whales, beluga whales, gray whales, several seal species, Pacific walrus, polar bears, fish, and countless migratory birds. The Inupiat people of northern Alaska depend on the land and ocean for the survival of their subsistence lifestyle and cultural well-being.
Pacific Environment's Alaska Program works to highlight the threats that climate change and oil and gas development poses to this sensitive ecosystem and urges respect for the traditional homelands of Alaska Native peoples who have subsisted upon these living marine resources for millennia.
Despite scientific information, public concern, and traditional knowledge that this ecosystem is increasingly threatened by global warming, big oil companies continue to push for increased fossil fuel exploration and development. Oil and gas exploration and development in the fragile Arctic would not only exacerbate the current long-term global warming impacts by increasing the rate of sea ice loss, warming Arctic waters, ocean acidification, and loss of habitat for Arctic marine mammals but it also has near-term more acute impacts. While this area remains relatively undeveloped, the pressures of Arctic drilling are being felt with more than 171,000 miles of seismic lines having been deployed. Already, community members are noticing the change in animal behavior including altered migratory patterns of the bowhead whale and walrus not returning to traditional haul out areas.
It is widely acknowledged that very little is known about these fragile Arctic ecosystems. Beyond that, there is even less information about the impacts of offshore drilling and an oil spill on the people and marine ecosystems of the region.What we do know is that cleanup would not be easy.
The Chukchi and Beaufort seas present many challenges to oil spill cleanup:
- Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas experience some of the harshest weather on earth. Summers are characterized by week-long storms, high winds, heavy fog that restricts visibility and often below-freezing temperatures. Winter brings months of darkness, extreme cold, wind, intense storms and moving pack ice. This harsh weather means that it could take up to three years to cap a blown out well in the Arctic.
- There is no proven technology to remove spilled oil from Arctic waters. The sea ice that persists for most of the year in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas renders the proposed methods for removing oil from the marine environment -- mechanical and in-situ burning -- ineffective. And the inability to detect oil spilled in and under ice in the most common Arctic conditions remains a major technical challenge.
- The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas lack sufficient response capabilities and infrastructure. Very little infrastructure exists in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which are in remote parts of the state with inadequate onshore infrastructure to support spill response. Things that we take for granted such as roads, hotels, food, internet, phone service, and easily accessible airports are not available in many Arctic communities. There is one road leading to Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea coast, and no roads or large airports on the Chukchi Sea coast. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away in Kodiak, Alaska.
Pacific Environment is working with a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, community members, environmental organizations, and scientists to ensure that Alaska's Arctic waters continue to be productive, sustainable ecosystems for the people and animals that depend on it.