PBS Looks at Dangers of Offshore Drilling in the Arctic

"Our ocean identifies who we are. It sustains us with food, medicine, clothing."

- Siikauraq Whiting, mayor of Northwest Arctic Borough

The risks of drilling for oil in America's Arctic Ocean is the focus of a special episode of This American Land, a new series running on PBS stations throughout the country this fall and winter. The Arctic program features interviews with Pew's U.S. Arctic Program director, Marilyn Heiman, and Arctic science director Henry Huntington.

It opens with a look at the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, at that time the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. An estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and billions of salmon and herring eggs died in the wake of the spill. Even now, more than 20 years later, oil can still be found just beneath the surface on many sites along the coast.

Farther north, indigenous communities who have practiced a traditional way of life for thousands of years worry about what an oil spill would do to the Arctic Ocean they call their garden. Marine mammals and fish make up as much as 60 percent of residents' diet. But the marine environment does more than feed their bodies; it is the heart and soul of their culture.

Watch the episode:

"Our ocean identifies who we are,” says Siikauraq Whiting, mayor of Northwest Arctic Borough. “It sustains us with food, medicine, clothing.” As Heiman puts it, “That way of life is very, very rare in our country, and we need to protect it.”

The show follows Alaska Natives as they travel to the Gulf of Mexico to talk with local tribal members about the devastation from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

Bowhead WhaleUnlike in the Gulf, the proposed drilling sites in the U.S. Arctic Ocean are in some of the most remote areas on Earth. The Coast Guard has no permanent presence. Simply getting equipment and trained personnel to an Arctic spill would be difficult, given the region's lack of major airports, ports, and roads. Shifting sea ice, subzero temperatures, extended periods of fog, and frequent storms with hurricane-force winds and high seas could shut down spill response altogether.

“Look at the Gulf of Mexico,” says Pew's Huntington. “You had a huge number of deepwater ports, all kinds of marine capacity in the region, and still it was very, very difficult to respond to.”

The Inupiat people know that if an oil spill occurred, they could pay a very high price.

“It will be the end of the Inupiat Eskimo culture up here,” says North Slope Borough Mayor Edward S. Itta. “We are the last remaining indigenous group of people in the United States of America that live the way we do.”

This American Land is produced by Environment News Trust (ENT), a nonprofit organization that has produced and released hundreds of environmental news stories for an international broadcast and Internet audience.

Media Contact: Christine Fletcher 202.540.6908

Topics: Oceans, Environment

Project: Protecting Life in the Arctic