Point Hope is a remote village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic Circle . 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 .
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 .
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 . 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 . This is a huge issue in a place so remote that even medical evacuations are near-impossible . 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 . The result of such a spill could devastate the area's biodiversity and local livelihoods . 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 . 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 .
Finally, in 2009, Cannon achieved great victory when the Federal Court canceled all but one lease in the arctic and banned future lease sales . 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 . 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 . More information about the fight against Shell post-2011 can be found at: https://ejatlas.org/conflict/shells-drilling-for-oil-in-the-arctic