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Iñupiat people resist offshore oil drilling and gas development plans in Point Hope, Alaska, USA


Point Hope is a remote village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic Circle [1]. The surrounding area is rich in biodiversity such as polar bears, whales, fish, birds, and caribou. Such natural richness has allowed the Iñupiat indigenous people to thrive in Point Hope for centuries in one of Alaska’s oldest continuously occupied communities. However, its current population of 700 residents also one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Within 50 to 100 years, sea level rises are predicted to cover most of Point Hope. Gradual temperature increases have already led to shore erosion and flood risks, which provide ample challenges to the community and public health. Storm surges and ice jams make evacuation difficult by compromising the airstrip and roads. Changes in weather and ice conditions delay the timing of spring whale and walrus hunts. Ice conditions have been inadequate in recent years to provide haul-out platforms for walrus, or for hunters to clean bowhead whales. Shore ice has become unstable, putting hunters at greater risk for injury. Hungry polar bears have begun to frequent Point Hope, becoming a public safety concern. Warm summer temperatures are providing opportunities for invasive species to outcrowd native ones, spread disease, and even interfere with subsistence activities. The permafrost that cools traditional underground food storage cellars is thawing, and there are currently no community alternatives for storage of whale meat and blubber. Algal blooms are making 7 Mile Lake, the community’s drinking water source, increasingly toxic [3]. 

Point Hope has also been threatened by environmentally degrading projects for decades. For example, in 1958, Project Chariot, which developed the hydrogen bomb, detonated a string of nuclear bombs only 40km from Point Hope. Subsequent nuclear contamination devastated people, wildlife, and plants for generations and deeply scarred the Iñupiat. The federal government had promised to relocate them and said that the radiation was harmless. Yet allegedly many died of cancer and leukemia and the radiation is still lingering 60 years later. Furthermore, the government failed to keep promises moving them and kept betraying the Iñupiat with continued nuclear testing and waste dumping. The blatant lack of respect for the Iñupiat and their land continued into contemporary oil and gas drilling explorations starting from the 70s [2]. 

Most notably, when gas prices began skyrocketing, the federal government proposed the 2007-2012 offshore oil and gas development plan, with hundreds of leases pending for approval [1, 9]. Caroline Cannon, who had been village president and a leader on the medical board organizing healthcare (Point Hope has no local hospitals) for 30 years at the time, immediately stepped up to fight the proposal [1]. She argued that there are no measures in place to deal with potential oil spills, and with the ocean frozen so much of the year, it could take several months for crews to even stem the flow of a leak beneath the ice [9]. This is a huge issue in a place so remote that even medical evacuations are near-impossible [6]. If a spill were to occur in the fall when the seas are freezing over, oil could be left to flow until the following summer when relief wells can be drilled [1]. The result of such a spill could devastate the area's biodiversity and local livelihoods [9]. Cannon traveled across Alaska and to Washington, D.C. to attend hundreds of industry meetings and federal summits, representing Point Hope’s concerns about what’s at stake and sharing her deep traditional knowledge of the Arctic marine environment, including whale migration patterns, walrus habitat, and the dynamics of ice floe movements in the region [1]. Urging lawmakers to stop the proposal, she convinced international NGOs to join together and use legal action. One of the most powerful voices in the legal battle, she used powerful narratives from her strong cultural identity to “paint a picture of life in the Arctic and the centuries-old whaling tradition for people that will never go there” [7, 9]. Her advocacy was firmly rooted in protecting the traditional culture of her people and the wild beauty of the Arctic [8].

Finally, in 2009, Cannon achieved great victory when the Federal Court canceled all but one lease in the arctic and banned future lease sales [9]. The Court had ruled that the government violated environmental law before it sold drilling rights. The Minerals Management Service failed to analyze the environmental effect of natural gas development despite industry interest and specific lease incentives for such development. The agency analyzed only the development of the first field of 1 billion barrels of oil despite acknowledging that the amount was the minimum level of development that could occur on the leases. The agency also failed to determine whether information it acknowledged was missing before the sale was relevant or essential under environmental law, or whether the cost of obtaining that information was exorbitant. One lease owned by Shell, however, was still allowed to move forward with its operations [4]. This is because the federal government’s actual sale of the lease occurred before the lawsuit began. Cannon and others are now challenging that lease in federal court [1]. More information about the fight against Shell post-2011 can be found at: 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Iñupiat people resist offshore oil drilling and gas development plans in Point Hope, Alaska, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Alaska
Location of conflict:Point Hope
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Climate change related conflicts (glaciers and small islands)
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Natural Gas

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The proposed leases generated almost $2.7 billion for the government from over a million hectares worth of leases [4].

Level of Investment:2,700,000,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/05/2006
Relevant government actors:U.S. Federal Court
Minerals Management Service
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:EarthJustice
Resisting Environmental Destruction
Alaska Wildlife Society

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Social movements
Local government/political parties
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Fisher people
Local ejos
Wastepickers, recyclers
Industrial workers
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Objections to the EIA
Public campaigns
Shareholder/financial activism.
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Refusal of compensation


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Genetic contamination, Global warming, Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage)
Potential: Air pollution, Noise pollution, Oil spills, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Waste overflow
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Potential: Accidents, Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Displacement, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Moratoria
New legislation
Court decision (undecided)
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Project temporarily suspended
Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Project cancelled
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:This was a partial victory canceling all but one of hundreds of oil leases sold near Point Hope and banning future lease sales nearby.

Sources & Materials

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[1] Goldman Prize. Caroline Cannon (2012)

[4] NBC News. Judge halts oil, gas drilling off Northwest Alaska (Joling 2010)

[5] Scientific American. What Will Ice-Free Arctic Summers Bring? (Biello 2012)

[7] Treehugger. Inupiat Woman Wins Goldman Prize for Leading Fight Against Arctic Drilling (Cernansky 2012)

[8] Pacific Environment. Caroline Cannon 2012 Goldman Prize Winner (2012)

[9] Earthkeepers. Caroline Cannon (Bailey 2012)

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Documentary: The Battle for Point Hope (BBC 2012)

[6] Podcast: Goldman Prize Winner Caroline Cannon (Living on Earth with Bruce Gellerman 2012)

Other documents

Caroline Cannon Photo: Goldman Prize

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA, [email protected]
Last update24/03/2020