North Star: Anti-Drilling Activist Caroline Cannon

Caroline Cannon is at the center of a big drama playing out in a tiny Alaskan whaling village some 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. As the pristine waters there are declared fair game for offshore drilling, this controversial activist is taking on Big Oil in a fight to preserve her native heritage and prevent what some fear could be an ecological disaster even worse than the Deepwater Horizon spill

By Tamara Jones
CANNON in the traditional patchwork-fur parka she wore to receive her Goldman Environmental Prize. The Iñupiat have fished and hunted in the Alaskan Arctic region for millennia.
Photograph: Rena Effendi

That same year, the drilling opponents scored their biggest win: A federal court ruled that further studies needed to be done on the potential impact of oil exploration on the marine environment. In 2010 the British Petroleum oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico provoked a federal moratorium on offshore drilling, and Cannon hoped the Alaskan Arctic would remain permanently off-limits. But not everyone in her state—or even her town—shared that dream. Alaska is hugely dependent on oil revenue; the state issues an annual oil-dividend check (averaging $1,485 a year over the past decade) to every resident and collects no income tax. Alaska sued to have the moratorium overturned; the ban was lifted in October 2010, but a series of permit and regulatory hurdles effectively stalled Shell until this past summer, when the company got permission to proceed.

But federal approval did not come without serious reservations. A June 2011 report by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that “many of the challenges emerging in Arctic oil and gas development decision-making are beyond the ability of science alone to resolve.” And even if Shell is capable of containing and cleaning up an Arctic spill, it could be defeated by the logistics of merely bringing the necessary equipment to a disaster site if conditions of heavy ice, fog, wind and total winter darkness prevail. How will Shell muster the necessary technology, Cannon asks, when sometimes “even medevacs can’t reach us”? In her view, the Iñupiat cannot afford to roll the dice and hope for the best.

“I am haunted by the worry that an oil spill will occur in our waters,” she told a House subcommittee in 2011. “The animals would either disappear or be so contaminated that my children or grandchildren would be forced to decide which is less harmful to them: contaminated whale meat or processed food shipped up from someplace like Costco . . . I know that genocide is a harsh word, but that’s what it would be.”

As Cannon stood outside her ice cellar earlier this year, Beardsley videotaped a new public service appeal. Cannon gazed solemnly into the camera and lamented Obama’s ultimate decision in Shell’s favor: “It hardens my heart and makes me sad to know he agreed.”

In recognition of her determination, Cannon was awarded a prestigious $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for activism last April. She wore a traditional patchwork-fur parka to the San Francisco ceremony and enthralled the crowd with the story of her father’s dying wish.

Nine years ago, she told them, Henry Nashookpuk, critically ill and physically spent, longed to be present at one more whale hunt. “As brittle and fragile as he was from the cancer, weighing only 90 pounds,” Cannon recounted, “he wanted to join my brother’s crew one last time. Of course, my reaction was no.”

But her father would not be dissuaded. So as the icebergs melted in the Arctic that spring and the graceful whales reappeared along the coast, Nashookpuk’s grown children carried him, in a sled lined with animal pelts and pulled by snowmobile, to the frozen shore of the Chukchi Sea.

Once at the water’s edge, the old whaling captain sipped a cup of tea while he gazed across a horizon as formidable as it was familiar. He murmured something Cannon couldn’t hear, finished his tea and then said simply, “I’m ready.” He died a month later.

Cannon still chokes up at the memory, unable to find the words to describe the bond between her people and the sea. “It’s not something you can explain,” she says. “It’s something you just have to feel.”

Originally published in the November 2012 issue

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