When The Choice Is Between Development And Life, We Should Always Choose Life

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(This story originally appeared on AlterNet.) My name is Earl Kingik and I am a member of the Native Village of Point Hope. I grew up in Point Hope and learned how to live off of the lands and waters that surrounded me. Now I teach the younger generations to practice our traditional ways.

My greatest concern for my community is an increase in offshore activities, in particular offshore oil and gas production. This will increase the impacts of climate change which are already changing our community and way of life. When companies like Shell Oil work out there anything can happen, including an oil spill. I’ve seen what happens when oil spills into the water. I visited the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster five years ago. I held the oil in my hand and it wouldn’t wash off. The smell stayed for many hours. I could feel how the migratory birds must have felt when they were covered in oil.

 

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I have fought to protect our Inupiaq way of life for many years from offshore drilling. We rely on the Arctic Ocean and the bowhead whale to keep our community healthy and strong. We celebrate our relationship with the whales every year. The whales are in every part of our culture: our homes, our food, and our traditions. We rely on the bowhead whales that live in the Arctic in the same places where oil companies want to drill for oil. When the choice is between development and life, we should always choose life.

I knew it wouldn’t end well when Shell Oil tried to drill in the Chukchi Sea in 2012. Huge ice floes forced a stoppage just one day after drilling began. And we all remember what happened next. The Kulluk, Shell’s drill rig, caught fire and slammed into Sitkalidak Island. It was proof that Shell was not ready to operate in the challenging conditions of the Arctic.

 

The mobile drilling unit Kulluk sits aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island about 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, in 40 mph winds and 20-foot seas Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013. The Kulluk grounded following many efforts by tug and Coast Guard crews to tow the vessel to a safe harbor when it was beset by winter storm weather during a tow from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to Everett, Wash. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.

 

Then again last year, Shell Oil tried once more to drill its wells off the coast of my home. After one short season, the company decided it was not worth it, and left for “the forseeable future.”

Now the Obama administration is deciding whether or not to hold even more lease sales in the Arctic Ocean. They are considering a 2017-2022 leasing plan that includes sales in the Chukchi Sea and in the Beaufort Sea. Now is the time to protect our ocean and our way of life by saying no new offshore drilling in the Arctic! I’ve been attending public meetings in Alaska to make my voice is heard, and I recently traveled to Washington DC to join with others from the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico to continue to say no. We all depend on the health of our oceans to survive, as we have since time immemorial. Our cultures are not worth the short-term profit of oil drilling. And on May 15, we stood as one to say that our oceans – including Arctic Ocean – is not a place to drill for oil. It is full of life and culture and oil drilling threatens both.

Imagining how the bowhead whales and walrus would feel if there was an oil spill in the Chukchi Sea makes me feel very overwhelmed. We are part of the ecosystem and we need to protect it. It has sustained us for thousands of years. Even the federal government says that there is a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill if leases are developed in the Chukchi Sea. I know that some of the Native corporations are in favor of offshore development, but I am not. The corporations do not speak for everyone, and I think that it is important for people to remember this.

Climate change is already impacting our world in the Arctic and offshore drilling not only threatens our animals, but it will make the changes to our homes even greater by speeding up climate change.

I thank the all of my friends in this work. We will never stop fighting to protect our ocean.

(Earl Kingik is a consultant for Alaska Wilderness League.)