Exposed: Chevron's Secretive Drilling Site in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
It's the middle of the frigid, long midnight at Tapkaurak Point, a spit of gravel curling out into the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of Alaska. Up in the middle of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest remaining wilderness area in the U.S., the sun set weeks ago and won't peek above the horizon until the middle of January.
If you were there now, bundled up against the minus-20-degree chill, you could climb the low bluff at Tapkaurak, turn away from the frozen sea, and in the dim light cast by the moon and the stars you'd take in the expansive arctic plain giving way to the craggy Brooks Range to the south. In the middle of the plain, if the aurora borealis is bright enough, you might see poking out of the snow cover an upright post—physically insignificant but utterly out of place in the treeless Arctic landscape.
The post isn't a trivial anomaly. It stands as a warning sign for all of us, advertising the ambitions of Big Oil to turn this place from a wilderness into an industrial profit mill. Wedged into last month's $1.5 billion tax cut law, which benefits mostly the 1 percent, is a provision opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to commercial oil drilling.
After decades of being denied access to the refuge, the oil companies have achieved a legislative milestone. And absent a movement of popular resistance combined with legal action, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will join the growing list of places around the world plundered by CEOs and a political elite who put profits before people and the planet. We can and must stop them.
Fourteen summers ago I was fortunate to visit Tapkaurak Point, and saw up close what the future holds for the refuge if Trump, Congress and Big Oil get their way. I landed my kayak at Tapkaurak toward the end of a two-week Arctic refuge paddling trip with three friends. We had gone down the Kongakut River and along the Beaufort coast toward the village of Kaktovik, arriving at Tapkaurak late in the evening in mid-July. We ascended the bluff. To the north, the gravel tidelands of the spit gave way to a lagoon, bounded by a long narrow reef. Beyond the reef lay the Beaufort pack ice. To the south of us spread miles of arctic plain, sedge grass lit up in brilliant gold by the midnight sun. Beyond, the peaks of the Brooks Range, wearing a new coat of white snow, stood out boldly against the blue sky. And then we saw the post.
We walked toward it, through marshy fields of just-thawed permafrost dotted with tufts of wispy Alaska cotton and bladder campion—a hardy purple-and-pink-striped Japanese lantern-shaped flower just a few inches high. Red-necked phalaropes, readying for their late-summer flight to South America, bathed in small pools of water.
Alaska cotton is abundant in the Arctic tundra regions. Oil and gas development strips the landscape of vegetation and in the Arctic, destroys permafrost.Jonathan Rosenblum
The delicate bladder campion is a uniquely designed wildflower that blooms in late spring.Jonathan Rosenblum
The tufts of dirt pushed up by permafrost were laced with small animal holes, and the snowy owl feathers scattered around were evidence that the birds had been hunting recently. The thousands of caribou who spend summers on the Arctic coast had already headed south into the Brooks Range, but sprinkled around the plain were antlers—shed after calving season, or perhaps the remnants of animals taken by predators.
Approaching the post we saw that it was a solid iron column, welded with the letters, "CHEVRON USA INC." This was the KIC-1 drilling site, the secretive test well Chevron was allowed to drill in 1986. Crews bored three miles down, at a cost of $40 million, before capping the site, dismantling the drilling platform and going home.
Chevron's KIC-1 post at the company's secretive test wellJonathan Rosenblum
Chevron executives know what the well found, but they aren't telling. Years ago, a court gave the company the right to withhold the information from the public.
Even with Chevron's claim to have remediated the site, half-buried construction trash surrounds the post: Metal cans and grating, cloth, wood, and glass bottles, all of it ever-so-slowly deteriorating in the cold, dry Arctic. Trash does not compost up there—it lingers on.
Compared to the surrounding permafrost marshes, which were teeming with grasses, flowers and low shrubs, the land around the drilling site was mostly a bare brown, compacted from the weight of heavy vehicles and machinery that visited a generation earlier.
A short way to the south, more shapes rose from the plain. We slogged across the swampy ground to investigate. These weren't test drilling holes. It was an old Inupiat graveyard. The grave markers, in various stages of decay, were made of wood. "Raymond Nanolo, Dead August 12 1933." Another, name undistinguishable, had a 1922 date on it. They were trappers and hunters, people with tremendous ingenuity, self-reliance and stamina who walked lightly on the land, as their ancestors had for the last 3,000 years.
The next night, as we launched our boats off the gravel of Tapkaurak Point and headed west, I looked back at the arctic plain and the iron post. It was a small pinprick on the vast horizon. But even this tiny human experiment had left an indelible mark on the land, with its trashed-out site and barren ground.
What Trump and Congress aim to do is take the human destruction at Tapkaurak's KIC-1 site and expand it by many orders of magnitude. Even with new technologies like horizontal drilling, oil and gas production is a big deal, requiring powerful drills chewing through the earth, endless miles of pipes and electrical transmission lines reaching over the horizon, and slurries of mud and other waste. And then there are accidents.
For comparison, you could just look 120 miles west of Tapkaurak, at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the 800-mile pipeline that extends from the fields to the south through Alaska. Those fields and pipeline at one point averaged 500 oil spills a year.
It's no wonder that 70 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, oppose drilling in the Arctic refuge.
Why Americans Will Never Agree on Oil Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge https://t.co/5jueNgalae… https://t.co/o4Q6ApFEIB— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1513939511.0
The Trump administration's Christmas gift isn't intended for anyone but a very narrow band of one percenters—Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who conditioned her tax bill "aye" vote to the Arctic drilling proviso, and the CEOs and major shareholders of Big Oil, who salivate at the idea of opening up the Arctic refuge to their profiteering.
Yet even with the passage of the law, resistance is not futile; indeed, it must be redoubled and join up with other fights to save the environment from oil profiteers. Two years ago, Shell Oil executives, facing a growing movement of mounting, creative protests and negative publicity, pulled their drilling operations out of the western Alaskan Chukchi Sea.
The Native American-led DefundDAPL movement has persuaded cities, organizations, tribes and individuals to withdraw more than $4 billion from Wells Fargo Bank because of its funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Three European banks pulled their funding for DAPL after the mass demonstrations at Standing Rock.
Now, a broad coalition of Native American and First Nation activists, including the DefundDAPL leadership, has launched a divestment campaign aimed at funders of proposed tar sands pipelines in Canada. Through direct actions, including militant bank office takeovers, the movement is building public awareness and pressing banks to withhold capital from these controversial projects.
Activist leaders recognize the need for hardball tactics.
"Big Oil, multinational corporations and their financial backers are not persuaded by moral and environmental arguments," explained Matt Remle, a Lakota Nation leader and co-founder of Mazaska Talks ("Mazaska" is a Lakota word for money). "They're capitalist and they are persuaded by one thing, money."
These boycott movements, led by native peoples and environmental groups like 350.org, are just getting going.
Now, with the latest congressional action, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge joins the list of places to defend with organizing, boycotts and direct action, in addition to legal challenges.
Big Oil and their political patrons are counting on the reality that few people outside of the native Inupiat and the occasional kayak tourist will ever get a chance to stand at Tapkaurak Point and take in the splendor of the surrounding wilderness, or stand in silent awe in the burial ground of a people who lived in harmony with the arctic since before the time of King Solomon, Jesus of Nazareth, or the Prophet Mohammed. Only a handful of us will ever spy that ominous totem standing in the near distance of the Arctic plain, warning us that this all could go away in a handful of years.
But you don't have to go there to recognize that what's at stake is a lot more than the risk of scarred ground, ruined vistas, desecrated grave sites and a polluted wilderness. Rather, the destruction of the Arctic refuge would stand as a totem to the triumph of the capitalist drive for profit over the humane stewardship of our planet. We must not let that happen.
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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