Alaska Refuge Drilling Threatens Native Existence

By John Gartner

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 23, 2002 (ENS) - Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil and gas exploration threatens to disrupt the porcupine caribou herd that annually migrates across its pristine landscape. For the aboriginal people whose survival depends on the caribou, protecting the herd is a matter of life and death.

The Bush administration backs the plan to open up ANWR to drilling, and November's elections gave his Republican Party a majority in both houses which could pave the way for resurrecting legislation that was defeated earlier in the year.

William Greenland, a member of the Gwich'in tribe who lives in Inuvik, a town in the Northwest Territories, recently toured the United States. As part of the Caribou Commons project's Walk To Washington, D.C. for the Arctic Refuge, Greenland came south to raise awareness of how opening up ANWR endangers his people


The Porcupine Caribou herd (Photo credit unknown)
The Gwich'in call themselves "caribou people" since 75 percent of their diet is caribou meat, Greenland said. He's worried that the barrage of oil wells, pipelines and machinery will divert the migration path of the 130,000 caribou away from the 15 Gwich'in villages, robbing them of their primary source of food.

Greenland participates in the caribou hunts that take place when the herd's migration route takes them near his town every spring and fall. "We only take what we need, we don't hunt until there are no more," he said. Greenland said that in addition to the fresh caribou meat, enough is frozen or dried to last until the next migration.

If there were no caribou, Greenland said he'd have to fish more or "go to fast food restaurants or eat Campbell's soup." But since Inuvik is located above the Arctic Circle, bringing in food by truck or airplane makes for expensive alternatives, according to Greenland. He said it costs between $30-$40 for a family to eat pizza or Chinese food, which could buy enough caribou meat to last a month. "Without caribou meat we start to lose our strength."

The Gwich'in not only use caribou for food, they also use the animals for clothing, tools, and to make arts and crafts. Greenland is worried that traditions of Gwich'in culture - such as making mukluks out of caribou hide, or using the hair to line doghouses - might soon be seen only behind museum glass.

Greenland said he's noticed some changes to the habits of wildlife, which he attributes to global warming. He recently saw a black bear that should have been hibernating. "It's only minus 19 degrees (-2 Fahrenheit) now when it should be minus 29 (-20 F). And if drilling starts in ANWR, Greenland expects many species to be affected.


Bull caribou silouetted against the Alaskan sky (Photo credit unknown)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) shares Greenland's concern about the environmental impact of petroleum exploration in the proposed "1002 Area " of the Arctic Refuge. A USFWS 2001 report states "The caribou's preferred food during calving season is higher in nutrition, more digestible, and more available within the 1002 Area than in surrounding areas. To successfully reproduce, female caribou must be able to move freely throughout the 1002 Area to find adequate food resources to build up their fat reserves and milk."

The USFWS adds that there would be a loss of "subsistence hunting activities" for natives, and "decreased calf production and animal survival."

And it is not just caribou that are threatened by oil field development. "The 1002 Area is critically important to the ecological integrity of the whole Arctic Refuge, providing essential habitats for numerous internationally important species such as the Porcupine Caribou herd and polar bears," according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.


Caribou calf (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)
Despite the environmental warnings from the government agency, fossil fuel developers are determined to acquire ANWR drilling rights from the U.S. government. The actual amount of economically recoverable oil underneath the 19 million acre ANWR area has been hotly debated. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates the mostly like amount is between 1.9 and 5.3 billion barrels of oil, or enough to fuel the United States for between three and nine months.

According to the USGS, "the oil is expected to occur in a number of accumulations rather than a single large accumulation," which would require an extensive network of roads, pipelines, airstrips and processing stations.

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens will likely join the charge with his fellow Republicans for new ANWR drilling legislation. On December 16, Stevens told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce it would be his "top priority" when the Senate reconvenes in January. The Bush administration, which during the past few months has relaxed regulations protecting wildlife areas and has eased rules on industrial air pollution, strongly supports exploring ANWR.

The pro-drilling side took a hit in late November, however, when oil powerhouse British Petroleum decided to suspend its contributions to Arctic Power, a lobbying group largely financed by oil producers.

Legislatures opposed to ANWR drilling say there's not enough oil to merit exploration. Resistance is being led by Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, a possible presidential candidate in 2004.

The United States has alternatives to violating ANWR, according to Joy Bergey of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Global Climate Change Campaign, which says protecting the environment is a moral responsibility. "There are so many ways that we can more than compensate for the oil that we would get from ANWR," Bergey said. Equipping cars with more fuel efficient tires, or merely keeping existing tires properly inflated could save an equivalent amount of oil, she said.

"Or, if we raised CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] to 39 mpg, Bergey said, "we wouldn't need to touch ANWR."