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Activists' lawsuit ignores hard-won compromise on Arctic oil project

Edward S. Itta

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) loves animals. They also love lawsuits. They want to protect animals in every corner of America, so they try to build fences out of lawsuits to keep people away.

I admire their dedication because I care about animals too. Bowhead whale, caribou, seals, ducks, whitefish, Iñupiat — we’re all products of the same Arctic environment. The Iñupiat subsistence culture depends on other species’ survival, so we’re careful. We adjust to their needs; we adapt to conditions around us.

We also engage in economic activity, because we have to make a living in today’s world, just like the folks at the CBD. When economic activity in our region conflicts with the health of wildlife, we step back and try to find a different way. We revise our economic plans to minimize impacts to the animals.

That’s what happened with the CD-5 oil project in the Colville River Delta. Residents of the nearby village of Nuiqsut were concerned about the impacts of ConocoPhillips’ original plans on the community and on the area’s wildlife. The Kuukpik village corporation also had objections. I was North Slope Borough mayor at the time, and I spent several years trying to help find a solution that accommodated the interests of critters, residents, village and regional corporations, tribal, municipal and state governments — while still allowing ConocoPhillips to go forward with a modified development program.

At the end of a very long process, we found a solution and the project received federal permit approval. It was a classic case of compromise, and it deserved to go forward for that reason. Everybody’s concerns — including those of North Slope residents who worried about the health of the area’s wildlife — were honored.

Enter CBD with a briefcase full of documents arguing that the interests of their members were not satisfied. Hello? Where were their members when the hard work of negotiation was going on? And when was the last time anyone saw a member of the Center for Biological Diversity out on the tundra?

Apparently it happens all the time. According to CBD’s lawsuit, they have members “who visit or otherwise use and enjoy the Colville area for recreation, wildlife viewing, education, research, photography, or aesthetic and spiritual enjoyment.”

But wait, there’s more. “Center members have also observed polar bears, bowhead whales and ringed and bearded seals in their Beaufort Sea habitat and plan to return to the area to observe these species in the future. The proposed project poses a serious risk to these species, especially in the case of a catastrophic oil spill. If these species’ numbers are further reduced by destructive oil development, the center’s members who enjoy viewing them will be harmed.”

Wow. If this lawsuit stands a chance because a handful of people’s viewing opportunities may be harmed, then we’re all in trouble. A broadly representative group of local people hashed it out with government and corporate officials over a period of years, and after it’s all over we’re supposed to defer to a handful of folks who apparently “visit or otherwise use and enjoy” the area without even making themselves known?

As friendly as these folks are toward animals, they don’t seem to have much in the way of people skills. They could help to bring opposing viewpoints together in search of a solution. Instead they wait until the hard work is done, then they throw a wrench in the works.

I’ve had plenty of harsh words for the oil industry over the years. But at least they show up and try to justify their position. They compromise if that’s what it takes. That’s what they did in the case of CD-5.

Going to court is supposed to be a last resort. For the Center for Biological Diversity, it’s their first inclination. It may somehow be friendly toward animals, but it’s offensive and disrespectful toward a people whose roots here are so deep that we are part of the region’s biological diversity too.

Edward S. Itta is a lifelong resident of Barrow. He was mayor of the North Slope Borough from 2005 to 2011. He is also co-founder and chairman of a new company, PT Public Policy.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.