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

Mining the Arctic could generate $167 billion in federal revenue and create an average of 54,700 jobs a year through 2057. But whether much prosperity will trickle down to Cannon’s hometown is a question no one can yet answer. Jobs created by extracting offshore oil would be years away and for the most part filled by nonnatives with the specialized skills needed for the operation. But even anti-drilling crusaders like Cannon readily agree that the state of Alaska would not be able to provide the infrastructure of schools, roads, sewer systems and public services in the North Slope without the money generated by oil. Still, dissatisfaction over that dependence runs deep in the hearts of people proud of their ability to survive for thousands of years amid some of nature’s harshest challenges. When oil companies send crates of fresh apples, oranges and watermelon to Point Hope as gifts during the whale festival, Cannon forbids her children and grandchildren to eat any.

Point Hope was instrumental in rallying other native communities to fight against drilling, says Beardsley. Cannon has added declarations of support to lawsuits filed by a coalition of villages and environmental groups arguing that there is no proven technology to contain or clean up an oil spill in Arctic conditions. But when Shell agreed to concessions, including a moratorium on drilling during the whale hunt and some $5 million for environmental studies and monitoring (with local advisers hired to help), various groups—including the North Slope county government and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission—dropped their opposition. But not the tribal community of Point Hope. “I’m not convinced,” says Cannon, noting that even without a spill, the marine life could be driven away. “The noises and vibrations could change the pattern of migration.”

Eco-journalist Bob Reiss, author of The Eskimo and the Oil Man, believes the mistrust runs deeper in Cannon’s community, and the resistance stronger, for historic reasons: In 1958 the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission decided to demonstrate peacetime use of nuclear devices by creating an instant deepwater harbor about 30 miles from Point Hope. Had the plan come off, it would have detonated half a dozen underwater nuclear bombs. Iñupiat opposition blocked Project Chariot, but government scientists had already sprinkled radioactive soil around the area as part of their impact testing. “They were lied to from A to Z, and it was terrible,” Reiss says. Suspicion that the soil made its way into the food chain and was linked to a cluster of stomach cancers in Point Hope is what initially ignited Cannon’s passion for advocacy.

“It was the women who should be credited with winning the fight against Project Chariot,” says Point Hope mayor Steve Oomittuk. “The men are quiet. That’s how we’re brought up, to sit on the ice and be quiet”—so the whales will surface.

Shell headquarters in Houston responded to interview requests for this article by referring More to the press releases on its website, and to Shell officials in Alaska, who never replied. In June, company president Marvin E. Odum told Platts Energy Week TV that Shell would perform tests until it was “absolutely sure” it could safely contain an Arctic spill. As the first of Shell’s drillships headed north this past August to begin sinking the exploratory wells, Cannon fell into a funk. Her voice on the phone sounded flat and weary. “It takes a toll on you,” she said. “After you repeat yourself 10 times, what’s the use?”

But as More went to press, encroaching ice floes, coupled with damage to a spill-containment dome during a safety test, forced Shell to forgo deep drilling for now. In a press statement, the company conceded that the dome had not met Shell’s “stringent acceptance standards” and said the work would resume in 2013.

Originally published in the November 2012 issue

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