Drilled Alaska: experts comment on Trump's oil and gas plan

20 August 2020
Trump declares open season on Arctic sanctuary
The US Department of the Interior has approved oil and gas drilling in Alaska's pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. University of Sydney experts comment on the possible impact on the environment, Native Peoples and animal populations.

Opening up the Alaskan refuge to oil drilling could disturb large mammal populations, including caribou, wolf, polar bear and whales, as well as migratory birds. Credit: Pixabay

Drilling a huge risk to environment, Native Peoples and animal populations

Melissa Haswell is a Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing in the Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Indigenous Strategy & Services. She says the plan to open up the Artic sanctuary to oil and gas drilling poses "huge" risks to the environment, Native Peoples and animal populations.

“The 19.6 million hectares of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge have been nurtured by traditional custodians, the Gwich'in, for thousands of years, and legally protected by the US government over successive administrations. There have been thousands of hours of arguments against this decision to allow progression of this industry," she said.

“Opening up this Refuge to oil drilling could disturb large mammal populations, including caribou, wolf, polar bear and whales, as well as migratory birds. Particularly vulnerable are the important calving areas of the porcupine caribou, that are critically important to the health, livelihoods and cultural and spiritual wellbeing of Gwich'in and other native peoples in the region. As repeatedly observed, oil spills contaminating coast and seas, as well as fresh water supplies, can be catastrophic and cause permanent damage to these values.”

“There are countless examples of oil and gas extraction in remote regions from South America, Canada and the United States having severe negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples, including profound losses to continuity of culture, fear of physical safety of women and girls from the influx of outside male workers in man camps and truck traffic, fear of being contaminated by air and water pollution from all steps of the oil extraction process including flaring, inability to maintain livelihoods forcing migration to cities and demoralisation from witnessing the environmental degradation and decline of wildlife and food sources.”

“With climate change progressing even more rapidly than scientists predicted, and time running out for the transition to clean energy we need to keep our planet within 1.5°C or even 2°C of warming, progressing oil drilling in the extraordinarily pristine and wildlife rich Alaskan Arctic is a significant threat to the global climate and biological diversity and to the health, cultural and spiritual wellbeing of the Native Peoples of the area.”

“There is substantial debate about the magnitude of purported economic benefits of extractable reserves and additional costs of remote drilling, especially as the costs of renewable energies are plunging, hence it is critical to ask, do the risks and losses of such operations outweigh the actual gains to the American people?”

Projects could impact local communities

Wolves are important for ecosystems in Alaska. Credit: Pixabay

Dr Petr Matous is a humanitarian engineer from the University of Sydney’s School of Project Management and is the Associate Dean (Indigenous Strategy and Services) for the Faculty of Engineering. He says that industrial projects like oil and gras drilling are pushing Indigenous communities to the brink. 

“Alaskan Indigenous communities are tightly connected to their land. Many directly rely on the undisturbed functioning of the local ecosystems for their subsistence. However, their relationship with the land has been continuously disturbed by an increased exposure to the joint impacts of climate change and industrial development projects," said Dr Matous.

“These changes have necessitated more and more adaptation in Indigenous Peoples’ way of life. Industrial projects that bring about local economic and environmental change can disturb local socio-ecological systems, by both impacting subsistence resources and the social fabric of local communities.

“Ill-advised industrial projects can lead to substantial ecological disruption, causing changes in resource availability for entire species groups that Indigenous people need. Good regulation and governance processes need to be in place.”

Drilling in the Artic presents heightened oil spill risks

Oil spills in freezing waters pose different risks. Credit: Pixabay

Dr Madeline Taylor is an expert in Energy and Natural Resources Regulation and Policy in the University of Sydney Law School and Sydney Environment Institute.

“The approval to drill in the Artic region represents a heightened risk of concerning oil spills in freezing waters. In the event of such a spill, cold water in the Artic leads to the creation of oily marine snow which falls to the ocean floor and is eaten by bottom feeders," said Dr Taylor.

“This creates heightened environmental sensitivities due to the remoteness and particular marine conditions in the Artic. We have seen similar risks being cited in previously proposed petroleum drilling in the Great Australian Bight, which has similarly remote and harsh conditions making oil spill clean-up extremely difficult.”

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