Looking at news tapes and pictures of Shell’s beached rig, the Kulluk, is an amazing sight. The Kulluk is now off the beach and in the middle of prime tanner crab grounds in Kiliuda Bay on Kodiak Island. Floating in the middle of this calm bay surrounded by snow covered mountains, it looks innocent enough. But, we have since known better.
Royal Dutch Shell is telling the world that they have the technology and ability to drill for oil in the frozen and treacherous Arctic Ocean, and do it well. Unfortunately the grounding of the Kulluk and the grounding of the Noble Discoverer earlier last year are a stark reminder that drilling in the Arctic is wrought with extreme dangers.The Kulluk beached itself a mere 55 miles from the largest U.S. Coast Guard base on the entire west coast of the United States, and was able to move the rig to a safe harbor. In the Chukchi Sea, there is no U.S. Coast Guard base. On the Arctic coastline, there are no safe harbors. And in the Arctic there is no recourse to assure a quick and proper response to mitigate the event of a spill or accident such as the one we have just witnessed. Fortunately there was no spill this time, but it does mean that the other impacts of the Kulluk’s grounding demands that we pay close attention to the risks involved in underwater fossil fuel extraction.
The closest community to the grounding is Old Harbor, a largely Aleutiq village just west of the incident. This must be a wake up call for all coastal communities, especially now here in Alaska. The slogan for the Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, is “Big, Wild Life.” Our short trip to the Kulluk was a glaring reminder that yes, Alaska is big and it is wild and full of life, which can be so intimidating. Because of its size, and because so many people believe we are yet so wild, there is a romantic thought that incidents such as this terrible accident have little or no significant impact on Mother Nature. We also rarely hear about the impacts on the small village communities. Our subsistence ways of life depends upon the health of the environment. Our isolation from the “rest” of the world means not having immediate access to alternative foods and emergency resources.
The long standing history of our homes, where our ancestors lived and survived, were given to us with so many hopes and dreams. From the very beginning, the first steps to drill for oil, to the last, the transport of the oil is inherently dangerous and terribly destructive, especially here in the Arctic. Even in what seems so innocent as the transport of the equipment used to drill for this oil, the risks are huge. Let us pay close, very close attention.