SECOND BEAUFORT SEA SCIENCE MEETING AT NARL

During the last week of February, some 90 scientists gathered at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory outside Barrow to discuss their last years research on the Beaufort Sea and to make recommendations concerning the possibilities of oil and gas development in that area. The state and federal governments are planning lease sales of near-shore tracts in late 1979.

Distinguishing the meeting from the one held last year at this time as the participation of oil industry scientists and representatives of the local community and the North Slope Borough.

Highlights of the meeting were the descriptions of Union Oil’s bottom-fast ice island which was successfully used for oil exploration in Harrison Bay and new information regarding the food chain driving the life systems of the lagoons and hear-shore islands. The discovery, yet to be validated, that much of the near-shore food chain is driven by detrital material, mainly peat fragments unearthed by ice scouring and distributed from rivers by shore currents, led many of those present to warn against the building of causeways and other obstacles which could cut off this external food supply.

The meeting was funded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which are in charge of the national environmental study program that is to precede all otter-continental shelf development. The National project, called Outer Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment Program, (OCSEAP) employs some 155 scientists from many fields just for studies of Alaskan waters considered for oil development. The OCSEAP office located in Fairbanks issues a monthly Arctic Project Bulletin. Bulletin No. 16 (Oct., 77) contained the draft recommendations made by the state for discussion of environmental considerations and was the basis of much of the discussion at the recent meeting.

The first day of the meeting oil industry scientists made presentations covering gravel and ice islands, ice movement and ice mechanics, mobile and other platforms, and transport and support facilities. The scientists then broke into disciplinary groups to discuss the special problems exploration and development would pose for mammals, birds, fish, and the microbiology of the near shore area. On Wednesday, they formed interdisciplinary working groups to arrive at practical recommendations for the exploration and development of the Beaufort Sea.

Among their recommendations are the following:

1) Exploration drilling should take place in winter only.

2) Ice island structures, floating drill platforms, and directional drilling from land are favored over use of artificial or natural gravel islands.

3) Causeways are to be avoided, even though a strong case can be made for their use. When absolutely unavoidable, they are engineered in such a way as to minimize current restrictions and fish migrations.

4) Operations that would alter the coastline or natural erosion factors are to be discouraged.

5) Facilities and capability to drill a relief well must be maintained during exploration operations.

6) Careful planning must be carried out to protect freshwater resources, gravel, and related materials.

On the last day of the conference, a meeting took place at the Assembly Room of the borough offices attended by a panel of the Arctic scientists and members of the local community. Mayor Eben Hopson began the informal meeting, which was broadcast live over the local radio station, with a few remarks in which he said:

“From the subsistence hunter’s point of view, the bowhead whale crisis has demonstrated to us that scientists can be dangerous to us unless properly supervised. The assessment of environmental risks associated with offshore oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea is so broad and complex that adequate supervision cannot be so simply provided as with the bowhead whale by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. I would like to see the state and federal governments reach out to our North Slope borough School district and our Inupiat University to bring environmental assessment and research into our schools to enable our students to participate in and learn the work of environmental Arctic scientists.”

The panel first explained to the audience the scope of the proposed sales. About 650,000 acres of offshore area, extending from the shore to the 40 foot deep mark, about four to five miles beyond the barrier islands, and roughly extending fifty miles east and west of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, from the Colville River on the west to the Canning River on the east. It was emphasized that not all of this area may not be up for lease if environmental or cultural values warrant otherwise. It was emphasized that the public would be counted on for input in the lease permit process, and that the current studies are available to the public at the OCSEAP office, Geophysical Institute, U. of Alaska, Fairbanks. As soon as the state and Federal government issue their call for nominations for lease sales in the Beaufort Sea, a process will be initiated in which the public will be invited to voice their concerns, whether they are historical, environmental, or cultural concerns.

Community spokesmen protested the presence of the drilling rig on Flaxman Island where there are several historical sites and the habitual unwillingness of both government and industry to release exploration information to local people. Arnold Brower, Sr., of Barrow commended the science group for what they were trying to do, a break with the historical neglect by government of Inupiat participation in such projects, “As long as I can remember, as long as oil research has been going on, since the 1940s, there has been a consistent effort by both government and the oil contractors to avoid recognition and participation of the Inupiat people or the resources on which they depended and on which they will depend long after the oil companies are gone. History did not record the intentional oil spills in PET 4 by the Navy. Since that time, we have been fighting for our survival, our food resources, and industry has ignored us. What compensation can we ask if all our resources are destroyed? This is possible, because our resources are migratory resources. near shore seismic operations still are destroying our fish. We only asked that we be recognized, and our fight for food subsistence.”