A consortium of 10 Arctic, coastal village corporations recently formed the Bering Sea Alliance and invited Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil to a meeting in the community of Wales. The Seward Peninsula village is northwest of Nome.
With increased ship traffic through the Bering Strait and the prospect of off shore oil and gas development in the area, village corporation leaders want to be at the table with resource producers to discuss impacts to their region.
Art Ivanoff works on special projects with the Unalakleet Native Corporation. He says the Bering Sea Alliance formed to insure the concerns of local residents are heard.
“I think it’s important for the villages to engage in the process and help set policy as it relates to development in the Arctic,” Ivanoff said.
The Bering Sea Alliance consists of ten village corporations including Gambell, Savoonga, Unalakleet, Shismaref, Golovin and others. The Native corporations are pooling funds and working together to gain political influence, protect subsistence resources and get economic benefits from development.
More than 50 Wales residents attended the meeting. The three oil company representatives told them there were no exploratory or drilling plans in place for this summer. Company officials say they are holding off because of regulatory uncertainty.
But residents of the Bering Strait and other coastal villages are still concerned about what is to come.
Winton Weyapuk with the Wales Native Corporation sums up the residents concerns:
“People are concerned that all the noise and traffic could change migration routes of animals, whales, seals, walrus,” Weyapuk said. “And of course they are concerned about accidents, spills, ship wrecks.”
“They are concerned about making sure that ships and traffic and boats don’t dump their wastewater into the ocean.”
Neither Wales nor Little Diomede have the means to deal with a possible oil spill.
“We being situated right at the Strait, we don’t have no infrastructure whatsoever to keep any type of fluids coming onto our shores,” Wales resident Sean Komonaseak explains. “We would pretty much sit there and look at it come ashore, unless we made our own of sealskin or so.”
“The fact remains is that number one there is no equipment, and number two if we did get the equipment, we’re not trained on it.”
The Bering Sea Alliance is still in its infancy but Art Ivanoff says he hopes it will grow over the next five years to facilitate training Bering Strait and Norton Sound residents on oil spill response and other services the oil companies may need.
“Twenty percent of the oil reserves hydrocarbons are found in the Arctic,” Ivanoff said. “Development is going to occur and I think it’s important to embrace this opportunity.”
“It’s a challenge but also an opportunity to make things better.”
ConocoPhillips officials say what they heard in Wales was consistent with concerns of other communities along the Chukchi Sea.
Statoil’s Ella Ede said that if the company decides to go forward with drilling in the Chukchi, they will work with local entities to maximize training and opportunities for jobs available during exploration.
Shell did not respond to requests for an interview.