Arctic Drilling Will Only Worsen Air Pollution for a Village That’s Fighting to Breathe

Earthjustice is challenging the federal agencies that want to fling open the Western Arctic’s gates for oil and gas drilling.

Oil and gas development is threatening the traditional way of life in the Alaska Native village of Nuiqsut.
Oil and gas development is threatening the traditional way of life in the Alaska Native village of Nuiqsut. (Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)

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When she began working as a health aide at a clinic in the tiny Arctic village of Nuiqsut, Alaska, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak got into the practice of counting.

She counted how many people lived in the Alaska Native village at the time: 323. She counted how many women were expecting children; how many kids had heart disease. “One of the other things I counted was how many people use medicine to help them breathe,” Ahtuangaruak told audience members at a recent symposium at the University of New Mexico. “I started in 1986: one. But by 2000, there were already 75. I had to start staying up all night to help people breathe.”

The respiratory ailments plaguing her community seemed to be linked to nearby fossil fuel extraction. She noticed conditions worsened when there were high volumes of natural gas flares associated with oil and gas processing. “In Nuiqsut,” Ahtuangaruak said, “we’re completely surrounded by oil and gas development.”

Her village is situated in Alaska’s Western Arctic, one of the most remote regions on Earth. It’s a place where Inupiat people have subsisted off the land for millennia, surviving off the meat of wild caribou and whales. Her community’s backyard is one of the largest wild and undeveloped territories in existence, spanning an area roughly the size of Indiana. Known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the expanse of public land is globally regarded as an ecological treasure, providing a nursery for migratory birds from every continent and free range for iconic species such as grizzly bears, musk oxen. Offshore there is habitat for Pacific walruses, ice seals and polar bears.

The fossil fuel industry has already started to change the face of the Western Arctic — on state and private land near Nuiqsut and, increasingly, in the largely still untouched federal public land in the Reserve — with oil and gas drilling, to the detriment of public health in Ahtuangaruak’s community. Now plans are speeding ahead for even more, and Earthjustice is actively challenging the federal agencies that have flung open the gates for profit-seeking industry to irreversibly alter the landscape.

Ahtuangaruak spoke a bit about her son, a caribou hunter who traveled more than 300 miles to harvest six animals, divvying up the meat to share with 19 families. “It’s our complex sharing networks that are so important to protecting our way of life,” she explained. But hunters in past generations never had to travel so far. “We went to the same area where his grandfather taught his father to harvest caribou,” she said. “Unfortunately, it has a gravel mine associated with the oil and gas development process.”

The caribou that her community relies upon for subsistence come from the Teshekpuk herd. It’s named for Teshekpuk Lake, the signature feature of the biologically rich area in the reserve where the caribou birth and raise their young. But recent lease sales held by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — auctioning off huge tracts of the reserve to the oil and gas industry — don’t bode well for the future of this important habitat.

In 2016, oil industry giant ConocoPhillips acquired 594,972 acres in the reserve in a single lease sale. This meant that in the blink of an eye, the total reserve acreage under industry control had nearly doubled. In 2017, BLM put up for sale all the land it’s authorized to lease across the reserve, encompassing a whopping 10.3 million acres. The seven tracts that received bids are all clustered in the northeast corner of the reserve, threatening to harm the Teshekpuk Lake area and further industrialize the region surrounding Nuiqsut.

In holding these lease sales, the federal agency failed to consider the far-reaching impacts of the wave of oil and gas development they are meant to encourage. In addition to the mounting health burdens on Nuiqsut and the additional stress on the Teshekpuk herd, there are serious climate implications.

The Arctic is already warming more quickly than anywhere else on Earth. To address climate change, scientists have repeatedly warned that the world must aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A 2015 study concluded that in order to avoid the worst impacts of runaway climate change, all Arctic fossil fuels should be classified as unburnable.

Yet none of this was factored in when BLM put more reserve lands on the auction block than ever before. In an effort to protect the nation’s largest public lands reserve from further oil and gas industrialization that will only deepen the climate crisis, Earthjustice is challenging these lease sales in court.

In the meantime, the people who have traditionally lived off the land in the reserve are still contending with the impacts of reckless fossil fuel extraction. “We have other hunters in our village that are experiencing tremendous hardship,” Ahtuangaruak said. “We want to continue to be Inupiat in the Arctic … but now our lands and waters are all industrial complex and sprawl.”

Based in Portland, OR, Rebecca is Earthjustice's Public Affairs and Communications Officer for lands, wildlife, and oceans.

Opened in 1978, our Alaska regional office works to safeguard public lands, waters, and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging, and to protect the region's marine and coastal ecosystems.