Rare Conference Brings Russian, American Officials To Table on Arctic Oil

Subsistence hunters from Chukotka, as well as officials from government agencies and environmentalists met in Anchorage for discussions on oil spill response in the Bering Strait. Photo: A. Kochnev, Walrus Haulout Keepers
Subsistence hunters from Chukotka, as well as officials from government agencies and environmentalists met in Anchorage for discussions on oil spill response in the Bering Strait. Photo: A. Kochnev, Walrus Haulout Keepers

Russia’s already strained diplomatic relationship with the U.S. is degrading further amid renewed reports of a military presence in the Ukraine. But a conference underway this week is trying to work around sanctions and rhetoric in order to focus on mutual interests in the Bering Sea. The delegation from Russia is in Alaska to prepare for oil spills and increased marine traffic in the region.

It took Nikolai Kalianto a week to fly to Anchorage from the Russian Far East, where he serves as member of the Chukotka Marine Mammal Hunters for a meeting on oil spills.

“In the summer the most important species are whale and walrus,” said Kalianto, himself a hunter, through a translator. “And the main concern of hunters are pollution in the environment and the potential effect of oil spills on marine mammals and the ecosystem’s productivity.”

Communities on the Chukotkan Peninsula have a lot with common with their counterparts across the Bering Strait, places like Diomede, Savoonga, and Wales. They hunt the same animals for subsistence, and there is rising concern about a lack of preparation for industrial accidents as exploration and Arctic shipping increase.

Eduard Zdor directs Chukotka Marine mammal Hunters, and says he’s hoping this conference can give communities more tools for accessing information that relates to oil spills.

“In terms of the oil spill response preparedness,” Zdor explained  in Russian through the same translator, “there’s no support. This is actually a big problem and a big issue, the communities don’t get any information about industrial activity, and it’s something that’s a big part of our work: to make sure the government and companies do provide information about planned industrial activities.”

The meeting was organized by the World Wildlife Fund, which has had an interest in Arctic environmental conservation for two decades.

“Because the sea ice is changing the Bering Strait is going to experience more human activity,” said WWF’s Arctic Program Director Margaret Williams in the back of a conference room at a downtown hotel.

Though WWF is a non-governmental organization, and is currently able to maneuver around diplomatic roadblocks in order to bring together experts. “So WWF has been working with partners in Alaska and Russia to identify ways we can plan for that increased human activity, reduce risk, prevent accidents and protect the incredible biological productivity and diversity of this region.”

The United States has limited capacity for spill response in the Arctic. But Russia has less, even as they are ramping up Arctic oil and gas development faster than the U.S. And according to Alexey Knizhnikov, who tracks the extraction industry for WWF from Moscow, sanctions have halted one of the biggest benefits that international oil projects have brought to Russia in the past.

“U.S. oil companies halted activities in Russia,” Knizhnikov said in during a coffee break between presentations. “For us, for environmentalists it’s bad because many Western companies brought better standards for environmental safety.”

The worsening political climate has also halted cooperation between federal agencies on both sides, who are now barred from even engaging in dialogue. So, while the U.S. Coast Guard used to work with their Russian counterparts, this week officials were only allowed to attend the meeting as observers.

Williams, with WWF, is hoping the conference can put technical experts and regional players in contact so they can begin coordinating spill prevention and response measures.

To some extent that is already taking shape on the ground, explained Gay Sheffield, a biologist with UAF’s marine advisory program with an office in Nome. She sees coastal communities working more frequently with health officials to report the growing number of irregular wildlife incidents in recent years.

“In the Bering Strait Region in the last three years, for all the environmental anomalies that have been happening—sick seals, sick birds, unusual wildlife, and oiled wildlife—in all cases those were communicated and discovered by coast community members actively engaged in subsistence activities,” Sheffield explained.  “So when it comes to engaging and observing the environment and knowing what’s normal and not, our community members have been the first responders.

The conference wraps up Friday with one-on-one discussions. And though they live just a few hours west of Nome, the Chukotkans will be flying east for the next several days.