At Arctic Energy Summit, Herding Both Reindeer and Oil Are on the Agenda


Oil industry and regional corporation executives discuss oil spill prevention, preparedness and response at the Arctic Energy Summit, September 29, 2015, in Fairbanks, Alaska. From L-R: Robert Blaauw, Shell’s Arctic Program Director and Chair of the ART JIP’s Arctic Committee; Richard Glenn, Executive VP of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and member of the National Petroleum Council; Mitch Winkler, Head of Shell’s Arctic Technology Program; James Hall, Chairman of ART JIP, Exxon Mobil.

Across the vast tundra of northern Eurasia, nomadic indigenous peoples have herded reindeer for thousands of years. From the Sami in Fennoscandia and northwest Russia to the Chukchi in northeast Russia, herding reindeer is, for many Arctic peoples, a way of life. Reindeer provide food, clothing, and companionship on the tundra. But at the Arctic Energy Summit in Fairbanks, Alaska this week, a newer herding activity in the Arctic came to light: herding oil.

Whereas reindeer herding is a continuous way of life, herding oil would only be necessary in an emergency, if there were an oil spill. Since 2004, led by ExxonMobil, the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Program (ART JIP) has been researching the use of “herders” like low-toxicity biodegradable surfactants – something like dishwashing soap – in ice-covered waters. These surfactants “herd the spreading oil back into a smaller, thicker slick,” according to this ExxonMobil report (p. 17). There’s even a brief video about successful herder experiments on the ART JIP’s main website. Once herded, the oil is easier to remove from the ocean, generally by burning.

Discussing herding oil during the Arctic Energy Summit panel.

Mitch Winkler, Head of Shell’s Arctic Technology Program, discussing herding oil during the Arctic Energy Summit panel.

Against the icy backdrop of the Arctic, the introduction of fire to get rid of oil seems like an almost hellish solution. But counterintuitively,  in icy conditions, burning is sometimes the best possible response for cleaning up an oil spill. The presence of ice causes oil to form in thicker layers than in open water, making it thick enough to burn. ExxonMobil also claims that smoke plumes dissipate quickly in the Arctic, and in any case, they note that human populations are generally quite distant. While Arctic populations tend to be small and scattered, however, there are still many people who depend on the environment and marine ecosystem. There may be fewer people than in cities in the south, but they may be more vulnerable to the effects of an oil spill and its remediation, too.

Herding reindeer, herding oil

Executives of international oil corporations carefully choose their words. During a panel on oil and gas industry emergency prevention, preparedness, response, and collaboration (which should be available soon to watch here), neither the Shell nor ExxonMobil executives uttered the two worst words for the 21st-century oil industry: Deepwater Horizon. To reference this disaster would evoke fiery explosions, black smoke, and birds with oil in their wings. Instead, the executives spoke of “Macondo” and the “post-Macondo” era – words more neutral and benign in their association, referring in more technical terms to the name of the actual prospect. When discussing Shell’s withdrawal from the Chukchi Sea, the two Shell representatives repeated verbatim phrases from the press release: “challenging and unpredictable,” regarding the regulatory environment, and “disappointing,” regarding the outcome.

So the choice of the word “herding” in the phrase “herding oil” must be understood within the wider context of corporate terminology. The word sounds bucolic, bringing to mind a shepherd and his flock of sheep, or in an Arctic context, a reindeer herder and his animals. Herding oil makes it sounds like it is something that just needs to be corralled into its proper place. It papers over how oil is much more viscous, sticky, and pervasive. The black liquid is not as easy to herd as reindeer, however stubborn some may be. Even today, if you dig into the sand on certain beaches along Prince William Sound, it is still possible to find oil a few inches down leftover from Exxon Valdez in 1989.

At the Arctic Energy Summit, I asked Anders Oskal, a Sami reindeer herder and Executive Director of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry in Kautokeino, Norway what he thought about the oil industry’s use of the term “herding.” He hadn’t heard of it before, and after I explained as best I could how the oil executives had described it, he responded, “We might call that edge herding.” Looking quizzical, though, he added, “You can’t drink oil. It’s not a food.” So the use of the word herding wouldn’t really work. Oskal asserted, “The day the oil industry knows a bit about herding, then we can discuss.”

Anders Oskal, Norwegian Sami reindeer herder.

Anders Oskal, Norwegian Sami reindeer herder and Executive Director of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, with his cell phone at the Arctic Energy Summit.

Platforms for beluga spearing and oil extraction

I wonder who paid more? Shell and the World Wildlife Foundation's competing signs at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska.

I wonder who paid more? Shell and the World Wildlife Foundation’s competing signs at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska.

At Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, not so far from the site of the Exxon Valdez disaster, brightly lit ads for oil companies depicting their platforms jutting dramatically out of the frozen North Slope decorate the walls. The ads are hard to ignore (along with an ad at McDonald’s for the “McKinley Mac,” which is exclusive to Alaska. By the way, given the mountain’s official renaming, shouldn’t the burger be renamed Denali Mac?). Shell appears to have outspent the World Wildlife Foundation, whose smaller sign is underneath. The juxtaposition of the two signs – Shell’s about investing in Alaska’s future, and the WWF’s about securing the Arctic’s future, illustrates the longstanding battle between oil and environmentalists up north.

The display of the yuyqil at Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Airport.

The display of the yuyqil, a 19th-century Dena’ina Athabascan technology in Southcentral Alaska, at Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport.

Tucked away in a dim corner between Gates B and C, however, was a small exhibit about indigenous technology in Alaska – the precursor to all the pipelines and platforms that would one day come to this land. In the nineteenth century, the Dena’ina Athabascans of Southcentral Alaska would dig up a spruce tree and turn it upside down before sticking it into the shallow shorefronts of Cook Inlet. The tree roots thus served as a elevated platform above the ocean, called a yuyqul, from which the Alaska Athabascans could throw spears at beluga whales coming inshore to eat salmon. This 100-year old marine technology to harvest resources from the ocean is an eerie predecessor to the oil platforms that would dot the North Slope seventy years later.

The Dena’ina Athabascans abandoned their yuyquls after firearms were introduced. This is not necessarily surprising. Oskal stressed to me that Arctic indigenous peoples have always been quick to take up new technology. He referenced studies done in the early 1990s that concluded the high ownership rate of mobile phones in Norway and Finland, which at the time were some of the highest in the world, were likely due to early adoption by the Sami. Indeed, as we spoke, he kept turning his cell phone over and over in his hands, almost methodically, and mentioned advances in battery technology.

Co-existence between reindeer and oil in the Arctic

The experience of the Dena’ina Athabascans and the Sami demonstrates that indigenous peoples can be just as forward-looking in terms of technological advances as the oil company. Indigenous peoples use technologies perfected over thousands of years, just like oil companies. Sometimes the two technological paths even meet, as in the case of platforms or cell phones.

Still, there are fundamental differences between oil extraction and reindeer herding. The oil industry is extractive and takes as much of the resource as it can get. It generates cumulative effects on the land and erects lots of permanent infrastructure to get to its resource, including roads, railways, and pipelines. In contrast, reindeer herding is nomadic and has a much lower footprint while tending to take only what it needs from the environment. Despite these differences, though, the two ways of life – extraction and reindeer herding – can co-exist under certain circumstances.

Florian Stammler, a Professor of Arctic Anthropology at the Arctic Centre in Finland, explained during his plenary talk how the oil industry and reindeer herders exist side-by-side in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in northern Russia. One of the reindeer herders he spoke to during fieldwork remarked that the oil companies have a right to be on the land and use it, too, and that life is more fun with the neftyaniki (oil workers) there. But reindeer herding and oil herding may be less compatible, for oil herding would mean that a disaster had happened: an oil spill in the Arctic. This is a situation that everybody wants to avoid. Industry and indigenous lifeways are compatible, but that compatibility has its limits.

Still, Oskal, the Sami reindeer herder skeptical of the use of the word “herding,” made clear during his plenary presentation that the oil industry is not necessarily the reindeer herder’s enemy. “It can even be quite profitable,” he attested. Renewable energy, like wind turbines, can be more destructive in terms of their impact on land – the most important resource for reindeer herders moving from place to place. The ideal environment for wind turbines is often on the same cool, high, windy grounds where reindeer herders might bring their animals to rest and cool down in summer and avoid mosquitos.

Several Alaska Natives I spoke to in Fairbanks mentioned that the oil companies were in fact doing a lot better job with respecting the environment and training and hiring locals than before. I have to admit that I was initially in disbelief when an oil company representative asked rhetorically during a panel, “Can bowhead whales smell?” (a comment which referenced how Inupiat knowledge informed scientific studies about these marine mammals’ olfactory senses, and which also brought to mind the work of anthropologist Julie Cruikshank, who wrote the seminal book Do Glaciers Listen?). For all the untold undesirable effects that oil extraction causes to the land, water, and air, companies are more aware than in previous decades of the people, animals, and environment where they are operating. They have also helped to fund a wealth of Arctic research – especially into bowhead whales.

So oil companies are consulting and partnering with a good number of Arctic indigenous peoples and anthropologists, but they are also continuing to hire some really talented people in public relations. As Oskal joked, “Maybe they’ll start saying oil husbandry.”

Mood at Arctic Energy Summit subdued following Shell’s withdrawal

It felt like somebody had died.

Such was the mood on the frigid floor of the Arctic Energy Summit this morning. The biannual conference opened today in Fairbanks, Alaska in the Carlson Center sports arena, where the heating hadn’t yet been turned on and where news of Shell’s withdrawal from Alaska’s Chukchi Sea was making waves. When Nils Andreassen, Executive Director of the Institute of the North, gave one of the opening speeches, he intoned, “After some of the headlines in the papers this morning, I’d like to ask for a moment of silence.”

For a brief second, some might have thought he was grieving for Shell’s decision to withdraw from the Arctic following an unsuccessful exploratory drilling season at the Burger J prospect in the waters north of Alaska. Andreassen quickly clarified that the moment of silence was “to reflect on the complexity of being in the Arctic. And whether you’re for or against some of the decisions that take place.” As the audience bowed their heads in silence, though, one could imagine bells tolling up and down the state as Shell packed up for good.

Reverberations of disappointment

Rex Rock speaks at the Arctic Energy Summit.

Rex Rock speaks at the Arctic Energy Summit.

After years of abortive attempts and finally managing to drill an exploratory well this summer, Shell claims did not find enough oil to justify continued exploration. In its press release, the company also blamed high costs and “the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.” Others rumored that Shell was looking for an excuse to get out of the Arctic because of so much negative press, particularly from environmentalists. Regardless of the actual reasoning, Shell’s decision caused disappointment for many leaders of regional native corporations and politicians in Alaska.

At the Arctic Energy Summit, Rex Rock, President and CEO of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC, one of twelve regional native corporations), expressed defeat. “We were pleased that Shell was able to finally able to clear some of its regulatory hurdles and head back to the Chukchi Sea earlier this summer. However, along with Shell, we are disappointed to see the exploratory drilling at the Burger J prospect not turn out as we had hoped,” he stated.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, who spoke at the icebreaker reception for the Energy Summit last night, tweeted:

The fixed infrastructure of oil

Arctic Energy Summit is a place for industry executives, academics, practicioners, and politicians to discuss how to get more energy out of the North and how to provide its communities with more, too. Renewables have almost just as big a presence as oil, with hydropower, geothermal, and wind energy often generating a lot of excitement. But the conversation tends to center on what will be the next advance – be it a new oil field, a new regulatory change, or a new renewable technology – that will allow us to sustain our current lifestyles rather than trying to alter how we think about consumption and extraction, as a colleague pointed out.

Through the windshield, an oil tanker train rumbles through Fairbanks.

Through the windshield, an oil tanker train rumbles through Fairbanks.

Particularly in Alaska, however, it can be hard to think of alternatives to oil given its tangible presence. Fossil fuel is invisible in most of the Lower 48, where you only really think about it at the gas station. Even then, you never see it as it moves from pump to tank. In contrast in Alaska, the inner machinery of the oil industry is etched into the landscape, both in moving and fixed form. Oil tanker trains stop traffic as they rumble between Anchorage and North Pole, just east of Fairbanks, where two refineries have operated with grave effects on human health and the environment. Meanwhile, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is a chrome wonder of the modern age that moves half a million barrels of oil every day from the North Slope to Valdez, the port on Alaska’s southern coast.

There are several stops along the pipeline where people can appreciate its hulking immensity up close and even touch the insulated metal if they’re tall enough. Seeing the four-foot wide structure curve through the orange-tinted forest of birch, spruce, and aspen trees can almost feel like coming to worship at the temple of oil. It’s this infrastructure that has allowed Alaska’s economy to flourish in recent years as oil skyrocketed to $147 in 2008.

Looking at the TAPS.

Looking at the TAPS.


TAPS: Roadside attraction and lifeblood of Alaska.

The pipeline must have a minimum amount of oil flowing through it or else a number of problems may occur, from ice build-up to an inability for the oil to pump itself over the state’s steep mountain ranges. So with Shell pulling out of the Arctic, it almost feels like another nail in the coffin for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Without a new source of oil, the the pipeline could eventually turn into a rusty ghost of a boomtime past.

Just before seeing the pipeline, we looked at hoards of old equipment left over from Fairbanks’ gold mining heyday in the 20th century. When gold was going strong, it was probably hard for people to imagine that all the dredging equipment would ever be sitting useless as much of it does now. It is similarly difficult to think that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline could ever be just an empty skeleton after all the manpower put into its construction and maintenance.

Old mining equipment now sitting

Old mining equipment now sitting unused.

Postponing the inevitable?

Perhaps that’s why although Shell said it was withdrawing for the “foreseeable future,” many others see it only as a temporary delay. Despite the somber mood and moment of silence at the Arctic Energy Summit, the dream of offshore Arctic oil hasn’t died. For many, it’s only been deferred.

Rex Rock of ASRC declared, “Make no mistake: we are not victims of a changing climate. Our Inupiaq culture is one of perseverance and resilience.” To him and many others, Arctic oil is an opportunity to be seized. If it doesn’t materialize, some Alaskans, Natives among them, argue that this would be the death knell for life as they know it – not warming temperatures, melting sea ice, or longer open water seasons. In pursuit of future riches from Arctic oil, they will probably keep persevering in their hopes that Shell’s drill ships will appear again on the horizon – and working hard to make it happen.

The pipeline lives to see another day.

The pipeline lives to see another day.

From the Equator, Singapore Considers the Arctic

Singapore: An odd place for talking about the Arctic - or is it?

Singapore: Talking about a warming place in an already warm one.

In Singapore, they say, there are two seasons: summer outdoors and winter indoors. On a hot and dangerously hazy night last week, the freezing-cold taxi cab from Changi Airport to my hotel proved that right. I had arrived on this tropical island nation to participate in a roundtable on the Arctic. My cab cruised past a Formula One racetrack set up for the weekend under the haze-shrouded lights of corporate regional headquarters and five-star hotels. Singapore is an anomaly even within its own region, with its futuristic skyscrapers and shipyards sandwiched between the palm oil plantations and azure waters of Malaysia and Indonesia. But it is even more of an anomaly in the context of the normal locales of Arctic discussions. These places are relatively remote and cold cities like Tromsø, Reykjavik, Fairbanks, or St. Petersburg, which have no small shortage of experiencing winter outdoors.

The poles are percolating into the public consciousness bit by bit, as this ad at a mall on Singapore's Orchard Road illustrates.

The poles are percolating into the public consciousness, as this ad at a mall on Singapore’s Orchard Road illustrates.

Despite being thousands of miles from the North Pole, Singapore has matured into a respected Arctic player in recent years. In 2013, it gained observer status in the Arctic Council alongside four other Asian countries: China, Japan, South Korea, and India. An increasing number of Arctic forums are being held in the city-state, with last week’s roundtable being a prime example. Arctic Deeply, the World Policy Institute, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and Guggenheim Partners sponsored the two-hour event, entitled “Asia in the Arctic: Where Things Stand.” Speakers included a representative from the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), a Chinese academic, a U.S. Coast guard, and an employee of the World Wildlife Foundation’s Global Arctic Program, among others. What’s notable, however, is that there were no representatives from the energy industry. Unlike at conferences in, Norway, Alaska, or Russia, exploiting Arctic oil and gas was not really a topic of much discussion – and in Singapore, there’s a reason for that.

A nation of capacity builders 

Whereas China, Japan, and South Korea arguably desire to import Arctic oil and gas, Singapore is not as interested in importing the region’s natural resources as it is in exporting its own technologies to help develop them. Despite having no oil and gas resources of its own, the city-state has a highly developed, home-grown offshore oil and gas sector. Keppel Corporation, which the Singaporean state still influences through a state-owned investment company, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of offshore oil rigs. Keppel also has several subsidiaries engaged in Arctic research and development. Keppel Singmarine has manufactured ice-class vessels in the Arctic for Russian oil company Lukoil, while Keppel Offshore and Marine Technology is researching offshore rigs, ice-worthy jackups, and other ice-ready technology. All of this will likely keep Singapore at the edge of the Arctic resource frontier. Possessing the technology rather than the resources also endows Singapore with the flexibility to go wherever the resources are being developed – and indeed to help break open new frontiers – rather than, like many Arctic states, having to wait passively for the commodities cycles to tick back up while trying to lure investors.

A model of the icebreaker Singmarine built for Lukoil, on display at the Singapore Maritime Gallery.

A model of the icebreaker Singmarine built for Lukoil, on display at the Singapore Maritime Gallery.

One Singaporean official mentioned to me, “We’re capacity builders.” The country sees itself as providing services to other parts of the world rather than as having an interest in directly exploiting natural resources. (That said, Singapore does import almost all of its vital goods, from food to oil to even water, from Malaysia.) As the country only industrialized and modernized beginning in the 1960s following independence from Malaysia, Singapore sees itself as being able to offer its experience to other developing countries. To that end, the country recently welcomed several delegations from the Arctic. As Kamal Vaswani, Acting Director-General, Europe Directorate from the Singapore MFA, explained in his talk during the Arctic roundtable,

“Leaders of the Permanent Participants visited Singapore last November and had exchanges with our officials on various aspects of public policy, from sustainable development to cultural preservation.  This included representatives from the Aleut International Association (AIA), Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), the Saami Council, and the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat.  From 7 to 10 September 2015, members of the AAC also participated in a short course on climate change adaptation strategies in Singapore, conducted under the Singapore Cooperation Programme.”

Furthermore, in collaboration with the Arctic Council’s Permanent Participants (all of which represent indigenous peoples’ organizations), Singapore has also established a postgraduate scholarship program allowing students of indigenous descent from the Arctic to come to the Southeast Asian country to study public policy, public administration, and maritime studies. Such programs represent the new forms of knowledge exchange that can occur thanks to Asian involvement in the Arctic Council. These endeavors will also hopefully enable indigenous peoples to return home with the skills that will allow them to better manage and hold on to revenues from extraction and shipping instead of having to rely on managers from the outside.

Arctic shipping: a distant threat

The Arctic represents more than just opportunities for Singapore. The city-state’s government is watching developments in the region with a wary eye, for should the Northern Sea Route or other trans-Arctic passages become fully fledged shipping routes sometime this century, it could threaten Singapore’s position as a hub for Asia-Europe trade. Currently, some 70 to 80 percent of oil bound for China and Japan passes through the Strait of Malacca. If these countries were to turn to the Arctic for either its resources or as a shipping shortcut, Singapore could see a good portion of its business decline.

One doesn’t have to travel far to understand how port cities can swiftly fall from prominence. The city of Melaka (Malacca) is less than a three hours’ drive north of Singapore. Nearly six hundred years ago thanks to its position halfway between China and India near the narrowest part of the Strait of Malacca, under the leadership of Hindu prince Parameswara, Melaka became one of the most important trading ports within the Asian shipping network. But in 1509, the Portuguese conquest disrupted Melaka’s position at the center of the Asian trading network. With the European conquerors focused on fortifying their new-found trading post and staving off attacks, ships moved to more peaceful ports along the Strait.

A Famosa, the old Portuguese fort in Melaka, Malaysia.

A Famosa, the old Portuguese fort in Melaka, Malaysia.

Now, Melaka is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site welcoming tourists rather than cargo ships. Ships never returned in their former numbers. Today, while they still pass through the Strait of Malacca, they make their ports of call at Singapore instead, and sometimes alternatively Kuala Lumpur (Klang) or Johore in Malaysia.

A true port city, where cranes are of equal stature with skyscrapers.

A true port city, where cranes are of equal stature with skyscrapers.

Singapore is hardly resting on its laurels, and the threat of outside invasion is presently negligible (though Malaysia and Indonesia, as relative giants compared to Singapore, still remain on the government’s radar). The success of its port is more than just an accident of geography. For decades, the government has made investments into its port to keep it world-class while promoting an extremely liberal trade regime. The government has also directed expansion into other transportation sectors like air travel and logistics, with Singapore Air and Changi Airport enjoying top-notch reputations within the industry. But should climate change melt away the ice cap at the top of the world – and, equally importantly – should Arctic states make the requisite investments in infrastructure, services, and logistics like Singapore has, then the equatorial city-state could see its central position within global shipping networks threatened. More seriously, of course, climate change also represents an existential threat to a low-lying island nation like Singapore, which officials have repeatedly stressed in speeches at Arctic conferences, as I’ve written before.

A more watery future still remains a long way away. For now, Singapore is keeping an eye on the North while welcoming its indigenous residents to its air-conditioned universities, board rooms, and government offices to learn the same skills that helped transform the sleeping fishing village into a modern port.

Singapore -

Singapore is “sailing into tomorrow,” as an exhibit at the Singapore Maritime Gallery proclaims.