Conflict & Justice

The battle for the Arctic: Big oil vs. the world


This is Ilulissat Icefjord, western Greenland, a UNESCO World Heritage site. With the race for Arctic riches steaming ahead, the region's indigenous Inuits are raising their voices and demanding that Arctic nations stop stealing their land and respect their way of life, both in Greenland and Canada.



As Shell retreats from the Arctic this week, ending drilling for the year before the winter ice moves in, some oil companies are flat-out refusing to drill in the wild north while others' plans are impeded by intervention from indigenous groups. 

Along the northernmost tip of Canada, above the Arctic Circle, a group of Inuit villages won a court order in August that mandates they have input on how their tribal land will be used by oil companies exploring and drilling for resources in the Arctic, reported the Seattle Times. 

According to an article published last week, the villagers of Lancaster Sound in Nunavut opposed a proposal by the Canadian government that would allow a German company to conduct seismic tests in an area heavily populated by wildlife and that serves as a traditional hunting ground. 

The court order doesn't block drilling or seismic tests, rather it allows the Inuit to be involved in whatever the future holds for their land.

"We've been saying all along that we aren't anti-development, we aren't anti-science," said Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, to the Seattle Times. "But we want to be involved, to be sure our environment and our wildlife are protected as much as possible."

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The Canadian government is still pushing to conduct tests, which the Inuit say will scare off the animals they hunt. The area is full of multiple species of whales, seals and birds and the Inuit would like Lancaster Sound to become a protected marine-conservation area, although that will also require geologic testing to determine how to best use the land.

"The mapping of undersea geology is essential to making better decisions on land use and economic development in the north," Leona Aglukkaq, who represents the Nunavut in Parliament, said when the government announced the seismic survey.

Environmental concerns will remain a key part of governments' and businesses' interest in the Arctic's resources, to be sure. But the Inuit victory isn't the only positive development on this end. 

French oil giant Total SA told the Financial Times this week that "the risk of an oil spill in such an environmentally sensitive area was simply too high" and that they were not looking for contracts to drill in the area.

“Oil on Greenland would be a disaster,” Christophe de Margerie, Total SA's chief executive, said in an interview. “A leak would do too much damage to the image of the company." 

Total currently is looking to develop land in the Russian Arctic, but unlike Shell and Cairn, doesn't want to touch the coasts of Canada and Greenland. 

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After seven years of planning and development, Shell broke the ice to begin drilling this year, although there is still no technological safeguard to contain a spill under the ice, which would devastate the region. 

Protests from environmental advocacy organizations (such as Greenpeace) have been on-going against Shell and other oil companies, but environmentalists welcomed and cheered Total's announcement. 

“The rest of the oil industry should heed his warning,” said Ben Ayliffe, head of Greenpeace’s Arctic campaign to the Financial Times. “Given the risks, companies shouldn’t be touching the Arctic with a barge pole.”

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of the battle over the Arctic, check out our Special Report "The Arctic Melt: Oil Rush at the Top of the World."