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Tomgram: Subhankar Banerjee, Oil Follies in the Arctic

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: As a companion piece to Subhankar Banerjee's unique eyewitness report on how the search for oil in northern waters may destroy America's Arctic ecology, let me suggest -- just in case you missed it -- Michael Klare's recent TD post, "The Relentless Pursuit of Extreme Energy." Together, they offer an unparalleled picture of a global energy nightmare in the making. ]

Sometimes the future is filled with surprises. On other occasions, it can be painfully predictable. In the case of drilling for oil in the extreme reaches of America's Arctic seas, the latter is the case. BP's catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, growing worse by the hour, is a living lesson in what will happen, sooner or later, if America's Arctic waters are opened to the giant oil companies. If their drill rigs arrive, rest assured, despoliation will follow; and barring the sort of quick action by President Obama or Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar that Congressional representatives are increasingly calling for, rest assured as well that they will come. Despite the sobering vision of BP's colossal mess in the Gulf, Shell Oil is reportedly "moving vessels and other equipment from distant locations, in preparation for assembling its Arctic drilling fleet" in Alaskan Arctic waters this summer to bore test wells. The company apparently has no second thoughts on the subject.

The difference between the Gulf of Mexico and those northern waters is this: the climate is far less conducive to clean-up operations. If Shell were to "BP" the Alaskan Arctic, despite its effusive claims for the safety of its drilling operations and similarly profuse promises that it's ready to cap and clean the oil spills it essentially insists can't happen, real help would be in short supply and a long way off.

If the oil company is allowed to go through with its drilling plans in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and anything goes wrong, the nearest Coast Guard base would be almost 1,000 miles distant, the nearest cleanup vessels and equipment too few and 100 miles away, the nearest airports capable of handling large cargo planes similarly at least 100 miles away, and the nearest "major potential supply city," Seattle, a couple of thousand miles away. Combine this with extreme local conditions and you have a surefire recipe for turning "drill, baby, drill" into "disaster, baby, disaster."

Subhankar Banerjee is the foremost photographer of perhaps the most beautiful, ecologically diverse, climatically extreme, and deeply desired oil drilling location in North America, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the Bush years, he had a strange experience: an exhibit of photographs from his book Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, was to appear at a major venue in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History, but in May 2003, the museum suddenly moved the exhibit to a more obscure spot and stripped it of its captions which -- horror of horrors -- "included statements advocating the protection of the refuge." The Arctic Refuge was never opened to the oil companies. The rest of the Arctic may not be so lucky. After years photographing there, Banerjee knows just what drilling in our Arctic waters will mean and what, if the Obama administration doesn't move with speed, will surely be lost in the process -- a world of staggering, generative richness which, distant as it may be, is our world, too. (To catch Timothy MacBain's TomCast audio interview with Banerjee on how big oil will impact America's Arctic waters, click here or to download it to your iPod, click here. And don't miss Banerjee's remarkable photos both in the piece and via the note at its end.) Tom

BPing the Arctic?
Will the Obama Administration Allow Shell Oil to Do to Arctic Waters What BP Did to the Gulf?

By Subhankar Banerjee

Bear with me. I'll get to the oil. But first you have to understand where I've been and where you undoubtedly won't go, but Shell's drilling rigs surely will -- unless someone stops them.

Over the last decade, I've come to know Arctic Alaska about as intimately as a photographer can. I've been there many times, starting with the 14 months I spent back in 2001-2002 crisscrossing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- 4,000 miles in all seasons by foot, raft, kayak, and snowmobile, regularly accompanied by Inupiat hunter and conservationist Robert Thompson from Kaktovik, a community of about 300 on the Arctic coast, or with Gwich'in hunters and conservationists Charlie Swaney and Jimmy John from Arctic Village, a community of about 150 residents on the south side of the Brooks Range Mountains.

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In the winter of 2002, Robert and I camped for 29 days at the Canning River delta along the Beaufort Sea coast to observe a polar bear den. It's hard even to describe the world we encountered. Only four calm days out of that near-month. The rest of the time a blizzard blew steadily, its winds reaching a top speed of 65 miles per hour, while the temperature hovered in the minus-40-degree range, bringing the wind-chill factor down to something you'll never hear on your local weather report: around minus 110 degrees.

If that's too cold for you, believe me, it was way too cold for someone who grew up in Kolkata, India, even if we did observe the bear and her two cubs playing outside the den.

During the summer months, you probably can't imagine the difficulty I had sleeping on the Alaskan Arctic tundra. The sun is up 24 hours a day and a cacophony of calls from more than 180 species of birds converging there to nest and rear their young never ceases, day or "night." Those birds come from all 49 other American states and six continents. And what they conduct in those brief months is a planetary celebration on an unimaginably epic scale, one that connects the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to just about every other place on Earth.

When you hear the clicking sound of the hooves of the tens of thousands of caribou that also congregate on this great Arctic coastal plain to give birth to their young -- some not far from where my tent was set up -- you know that you are in a place that is a global resource and does not deserve to be despoiled.

Millions of Americans have come to know the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even if at a distance, thanks to the massive media attention it got when the Bush administration indicated that one of its top energy priorities was to open it up to oil and gas development. Thanks to the efforts of environmental organizations, the Gwich'in Steering Committee, and activists from around the country, George W. Bush fortunately failed in his attempt to turn the refuge into an industrial wasteland.

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While significant numbers of Americans have indeed come to care for the Arctic Refuge, they know very little about the Alaskan Arctic Ocean regions -- the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea (which the refuge abuts).

I came to know these near-shore coastal areas better years later and discovered what the local Inupiats had known for millennia: these two Arctic seas are verdant ecological habitats for remarkable numbers of marine species, including endangered Bowhead whales and threatened polar bears, Beluga whales, walruses, various kinds of seals, and numerous species of fish and birds, not to mention the vast range of "non-charismatic" marine creatures we can't see right down to the krill -- tiny shrimp-like marine invertebrates -- that provide the food that makes much of this life possible.

The Kasegaluk lagoon, which I spent much time documenting as a photographer, along the Chukchi Sea is one of the most important coastal treasures of the entire circumpolar north. It is 125 miles long and only separated from the sea by a thin stretch of barrier islands. Five icy rivers drain into the lagoon, creating a nutrient-rich habitat for a host of species. An estimated 4,000 Beluga whales are known to calve along its southern edge, and more than 2,000 spotted seals use the barrier islands as haul-out places in late summer, while 40,000 Black Brant goose use its northern reaches as feeding grounds in fall.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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