Arctic oil: Russia pushes north as U.S. blocks Alaska leasing


Russian President Vladimir Putin announces the first shipment from the Novoportovskoye field earlier this year. Photo:

While the U.S. Department of the Interior announced earlier this month that it would hold off on leasing areas in the Alaskan offshore for the foreseeable future, Russia is moving full steam ahead in developing Arctic oil. This difference reflect’s the current U.S. administration’s bearish stance on Arctic fossil fuels, whereas the Russian government is bullish.

The U.S. government has just enacted a policy that will prevent Arctic drilling until 2022 at a maximum, though possibly shorter if the Trump administration tries to re-write the leasing plan. In contrast, the Russian government has put in place several strategies since 2008 directed at boosting its Arctic oil production. Most recently, the Russian Energy Strategy up to 2035 aims to increase energy production in the Arctic so that by 2035, Arctic offshore resources account for 5% of national oil extraction and 10% of national gas extraction (1). While the government placed a 10-year moratorium on new Arctic offshore leases in September 2016, a significant number of leases have already been issued, as the map below illustrates.

A map of oil leases in the Russian Arctic.

A map of oil leases in the Russian Arctic. Green = Rosneft, red = Gazprom, orange = Lukoil, yellow = others. Source: Ecology and Life.

In line with the government’s strategies, this month, Russian oil company Gazprom Neft announced that it would begin sea trials of a non-nuclear icebreaker called Alexander Sannikov. The ship is designed to support oil exploration and oil spill response in the extreme Arctic. Named after a lieutenant general who served in the Russian Imperial Army in the early 20th century, the vessel was recently completed at a shipyard near St. Petersburg and is the first of its kind. Alexander Sannikov will accompany oil tankers sailing along the Northern Sea Route in winter and ensure year-round export from the marine terminal “Gates of the Arctic” at Novy Port on the Yamal Peninsula, which is the fast-growing heart of the Russian Arctic oil industry. Novy Port’s first shipment of oil in winter took place in February 2015. The Gates of the Arctic terminal can operate in -50°C and in ice up to two meters thick, according to Gazprom. The company claims it also “meets the most stringent requirements in the field of industrial safety and environmental protection.

On the Yamal Peninsula, Gazprom Neft has big plans for the Novoportovskoye field, which just opened this year. The company plans to increase its oil production from 2.5 million tons this year to 5.5 million tons in 2016 and 8.5 million tons in 2017. According to Russian news agency TASS, Vadim Yakovlev expressed that “the commercial exploitation of Novoportovskoye field heralds a new, northernmost gas province, which is unique in exploitation, infrastructure, and transportation.” The oil will be shipped out of Novy Port, which appears to have laid relatively dormant in satellite imagery from 1985 until 2015. As shown below, the pipeline from the Novoportovskoye field to the port on the Gulf of Ob appears to have been laid in just one year.

Construction of oil infrastructure near Novy Port, Yamal Peninsula, Russia.

Six years of construction (2011-2016) of oil infrastructure near Novy Port, Yamal Peninsula, Russia as viewed in Google Earth.

Icebreakers like Alexander Sannikov and a similar vessel under construction, Andrey Vilkitsky, exemplify the Russian state’s belief in the importance of developing state-of-the-art technology to exploit Russia’s Arctic resources. Alexander Dybal, a board member of Gazprom Neft, offered, “The majority of Russia’s offshore fields, which are located close to shore and were exported by sea in the 20th century, could not be built or operated because there were no such new technologies. Only the technology of the 21st century, embodied by technologies such as this icebreaker, permit the extraction of oil in the Arctic.”

Similar ideas were expressed over the past few days at the Arctic Days conference in Moscow, sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Minister Sergei Donskoy, echoed Russian government strategy in the Arctic by affirming, “The Arctic is one of the territories whose development is of key importance for the country and requires the creation of a strong technological base.” (Side note: The conference’s slogan, “Arctic – Energy of the Future!” is oddly not included on the English-language version of the website.)

Unpaid oil workers go on hunger strike in Yamal


Screenshot of the Novaya Gazeta article. The graffiti on the pipeline reads, “Where’s my money?”

It’s not all smooth sailing in the Russian Arctic. On the Yamal Peninsula, employees of several companies associated with the oil and gas industry have gone on a hunger strike in Novy Port, where the temperature is currently -25°C. Approximately 700 workers are now on strike, with some having refused to eat for 10 days. Workers claim that they have toiled in slave labor conditions without receiving payment, with one person alleging to have been paid in 10 cans of corned beef. The situation is now under investigation by regional reporters. According to their report,

  • PurGazStroy (roughly translated as Pure Gas Construction) owes 22 million rubles ($337,195) in salary to 157 employees;
  • Promindustriia (~Industrial) owes 38 million rubles ($582,427) to 330 employees;
  • and TRUST SevZapSpetsStroyMontazh (~Northwest Special Construction) owes 3 million rubles ($45,981) to 80 employees.

The burgeoning industry on the Yamal Peninsula has attracted many workers from across Russia. Russian journalist Tatiana Britske writes in her investigative report in Novaya Gazeta (in Russian):

“Thousands of men moved from all over Russia for a simple reason: loans, family, no work. Northern construction – oil and the military, promising good money, became, as once, a decoy for those who wanted to escape from the swamp. But unlike the Komsomol and the Romantic era of the development of the Far North, a trip to the edge of the earth now increasingly turns slavery.”

Many in the West might conceive of communist development of the Soviet Arctic as a miserable time of gulags and forced labor. But in fact, many Russians willingly moved to the North in search of adventure and to be part of a great mission to develop the region. The government leveraged the enthusiasm of these young people, who often joined the Komsomol (a political youth organization), to carry out the enormous tasks of building infrastructure across the Russian North. It’s remarkable to see how contemporary development of the Russian Arctic is negatively contrasted with the communist era.

A building in Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia that remembers the efforts of the Komsomol. Photo: Cryopolitics.

A building in Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia that remembers the efforts of the Komsomol. Photo: Cryopolitics.

The comments on the Novaya Gazeta article reveal the deep frustration among some Russians with the oil and gas industry. A commenter named Igor wrote:

“The only thing that feeds the whole country – oil and gas. Nothing else is done, but only produced, sold, and are displayed in the offshore companies to buy cellos and yachts. The only industry – the core of the entire economy at large, and then manage to overcome it and throw workers … Even those who with their own hands creates the possibility that at least some of the infusion is not part of the embezzled money to the budget and that of the people do not believe that the … we talk about the rest.”

Alaska’s Arctic Oil: Frozen for another five years

2017-2022 Oil and Gas Leasing Proposed Final Program Area for the Cook Inlet. If the plan holds, no Arctic offshore leases in Alaska will be sold over the next five years.

2017-2022 Oil and Gas Leasing Proposed Final Program Area for the Cook Inlet. If the plan holds, no Arctic offshore leases in Alaska will be sold over the next five years.

While Russia’s “black gold” continues to be dredged up from the Arctic offshore, Alaska’s will likely sit in the ground for a few years yet. A press release from the Department of the Interior concerning the Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Plan for 2017-2022 delivered the bad news for the many people in Alaska whose livelihoods depend on the industry’s growth. Only a small area around Cook Inlet, on Alaska’s southern coast, will be up for lease. The DOI justified its exclusion of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from its five-year lease sales plan as follows:

Alaska: Considering the fragile and unique Arctic ecosystem and the recent demonstrated decline in industry interest, the Proposed Final Program does not include any lease sales in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas.  Based on consideration of the best available science and significant public input, the Department’s analysis identified significant risks to sensitive marine resources and communities from potential new leasing in the Arctic. Moreover, due to the high costs associated with exploration and development in the Arctic and the foreseeable low projected oil prices environment, demonstrated industry interest in new leasing currently is low.

In making this decision, the DOI went against the wishes of most of Alaska’s politicians and residents. The voices of the pro-oil contingent in Alaska are made clear in a summary of the 3.3 million comments submitted to the DOI during their public consultation on plans for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) for 2017-2022. Here are a few examples:

  • Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski: “The Senator requests increasing the number of lease sales in the Cook Inlet and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the Arctic, and to include a minimum of three Alaskan lease sales. The Senator also requests any additional withdrawals not move forward without the support of Alaskans. According to the Senator, utilizing the oil reserves off the coast of Alaska would provide energy security and a bright economic future for Alaska and the Nation.”
  • Alaska Department of Natural Resources: “The commenter requests making leases in the Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet, and Chukchi Sea available as soon as possible. The commenter suggests that the current plan is limiting economic opportunity for the region and the United States. The commenter requests a plan that ensures timely and predictable access to Alaska’s highly prospective OCS lands.”
  • Alaska’s NANA Regional Corporation (Lance Miller) (an Alaska Native regional corporation): “The commenter states support for development of oil and gas off the shore of Alaska, and states opposition to any additional restrictions for the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. The commenter suggests that development in these areas will help provide jobs to the area and locals can incorporate traditional knowledge of the land and water to help carry out monitoring. The commenter encourages collaboration between the Bureau and native Alaskan populations in any further plans for exploration or development in the Arctic Sea.”
  • Alaska Trucking Association: “The commenter states support for all proposed leasing areas in Alaska. The commenter asserts that the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are rich in oil, and the United States should take advantage of this natural resource to support job creation and increase American energy security. The commenter concludes that advances in drilling technology allow for safe drilling with minimal environmental impact.”

The few stakeholders that spoke out against drilling in the Alaskan Arctic were the marine Mammal Commission, which “requests the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas be deferred from leasing in the 2017-2022 Program, as these areas are undergoing rapid change due to climate change and marine habitat should be monitored without the presence of oil and gas drilling,” and a number of environmental non-profit organizations including the Alaska Wilderness League and Greenpeace. A letter put together by the organizations and signed by 15,866 signatories also expressed opposition for similar reasons. Until January 20, they can rest easy that there will be no federal government support for U.S. Arctic offshore drilling.

Unclear path ahead for Arctic oil

The Russian Arctic oil industry enjoys the strong support of federal and regional governments but faces a weak global market for oil and unrest among its workers. Alaskan Arctic oil enjoys strong support from both the state’s political elite and the general public, but faces the same weak global market and a federal government opposed to Arctic drilling. Yet the calculus for drilling in the Alaskan Arctic may change with the Trump administration. An editorial published over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal urged:

“Mr. Obama says there’s no reason to drill in the Arctic because oil prices are so low, as if the government can predict energy prices five or 10 years from now. The Arctic region is thought to hold 90 billion barrels of oil, and up to 30% of the world’s untapped natural gas. Exploration and drilling would create thousands of jobs, and most resources lie in relatively shallow waters fewer than 100 meters deep…More than 85% of area offshore controlled by the federal government is closed to exploration. Mr. Trump can unlock this potential, which would be a gusher for global consumers and American economic growth.”

While Arctic oil may lie in shallow waters, they are extremely risky and dangerous. Russia’s government and industry leaders appear to recognize that the region presents unique challenges to drilling. That is why the country, which already has more infrastructure in the North than any other Arctic state, has poured money into developing technologies to allow it to overcome thick sea ice and insanely cold temperatures. The investment in homegrown technologies is also a response to the U.S. and E.U. sanctions.

In the U.S., there is a strange and pervasive notion among industry boosters that drilling in the Arctic will not be all too different from anywhere as else. The belief that drilling in Alaska’s offshore will be easy once supposedly onerous regulations are lifted is worrisome. It may mean that once companies receive permission to drill, they will rush in unprepared and overconfident – although for now, the low price of oil may still remain a barrier without major subsidies from the U.S. or Alaskan governments.

Come January, Trump’s administration may engender more cooperation between Russian and U.S. companies in the Arctic offshore. At an international level, this could improve political and economic relations between the two countries. Yet as the Arctic oil industry grows, more conflicts below the international level are likely to arise between industry, labor, government, indigenous peoples, and environmental organizations. And despite the narrative promoted by the U.S. media that the country is so very different from Russia, the hunger strike by unpaid oil workers in Yamal and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, where police used water cannons in freezing temperatures against demonstrators, suggest that the U.S. and Russia may share more in common than is typically believed.


Gritsenko, D. (2016). Vodka on ice? Unveiling Russian media perceptions of the Arctic. Energy Research & Social Science, 16, 8-12.

Trump’s election a cold reality check for the Arctic


President-elect Donald Trump. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 License

Today, half of America woke up feeling overjoyed that finally, their voices had been heard. The other half felt sickened, defeated, and deeply concerned at what the next four years hold. Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election promises a lot of change at home and abroad. For the Arctic, his presidency does not bode well – but at the end of the day, there may be hope. Here are four damaging outcomes a Trump presidency could have for the Arctic, along with a few possible silver linings.

Health care for Alaska Natives


A session on mental well-being in the Arctic at the October 2016 Arctic Circle assembly in Iceland. Trump’s rollback of Obamacare may undermine health care for Alaska Natives. Photo: Arctic Circle.

In the 1990’s, Trump repeatedly warred with Native American tribes as they built casinos on their land across the country that threatened his hold on the industry. Today, Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may spell disaster for the many Alaska Natives who have come to rely on it. Trump’s threat to repeal Obamacare is not an empty one: the 22 million people covered by it, mostly through Medicaid and insurance marketplaces, could end up uninsured. Some of these people are inevitably Alaska Natives. On average, this group has poor health compared to other Alaskans, including higher risks of mental health issues, suicide, diabetes, and obesity, and generally faces more difficult access to health care facilities. Nationwide, 30% of Native Americans are uninsured compared to other Americans.

Prior to Obamacare, pre-existing treaties between Natives and the federal government guaranteed health care, which was delivered by the Indian Health Service. Yet the program was poorly funded and hard to access for Native peoples living off-reservation and in cities, away from tribal health facilities. ACA, commonly referred to as Obamacare, expanded coverage for Alaska Natives and Native Americans and also exempted them from having to pay the fee if they did not sign up for insurance. Alaska is also one of the states that has expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. If Obama’s signature health plan disappears, it’s not clear what will replace it. Any gap in coverage for Alaska Natives, an already vulnerable population, will represent a blow to Arctic health at large.

Climate change denial

Gas flaring releases large amounts of methane.

Gas flaring releases large amounts of methane that contribute to global warming.

Trump has denied climate change, calling it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to render U.S. manufacturing uncompetitive. Climate change may well be intensifying due to Chinese actions: the country accounts for 10% of all emissions released since industrialization began in 1750 and is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But climate change is not a hoax, and China’s cooperation is crucial for stemming the release of emissions into the atmosphere. Yet when President Obama leaves office, the world can likely say goodbye to bilateral efforts between the U.S. and other nations on climate change such as the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change or the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership. Multilateral agreements like the historic Paris Agreement reached at COP 21 could even be thrown out the window if Trump follows through on his threat to “cancel” the international agreement.

So in short, whereas the White House released a joint statement in November 2014 with China that said the following,

“The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change, one of the greatest threats facing humanity. The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.”

Trump tweeted this in November 2012:

Fast forward to November 2016, and president-elect Trump has just appointed notorious climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to head up the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. With science deniers such as him in charge of government agencies, there’s likely to be a brain drain from government. Top scientists and environmentalists will not want to work in bureaus and agencies that ultimately report to Trump. This may have damaging consequences for drafting informed policy about a fast-changing Arctic. Even worse, Trump’s desire to tear up methane restrictions that have been proposed for oil and gas producers could speed up global warming, since methane’s impact is 100 times greater than a molecule of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. With the U.S. having overtaken Russia as the world’s biggest producer of gas, one would think we have a responsibility to frack and drill responsibly – but not Trump.

Arctic offshore drilling: Revived hopes in Alaska and Russia?

The Prirazlomnaya platform in Russia's Kara Sea. Could a Trump presidency re-open the Russian offshore to U.S. investment?

The Prirazlomnaya platform in Russia’s Kara Sea. Could a Trump presidency re-open the Russian offshore to U.S. investment?

Trump is a champion of an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which promotes fossil fuels alongside renewables like wind and solar. He wants to produce more oil and more coal, even though the U.S. already has a glut of the viscous fossil fuel and the rocky one is essentially dead on arrival as utility companies switch to natural gas for power generation.

Trump’s pro-drilling stance will sit well in oil-rich Alaska, where most in the state, including many Alaska Native corporations and their shareholders, support the expansion of offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Trump would have to do a lot in the way of providing subsidies in order to encourage corporations like Shell to come back, however. At around $44, the current price of a barrel of oil is far too low to make offshore drilling in the Alaskan Arctic sensible. OPEC released a report yesterday estimating that the price of oil would still only recover to $60 by 2020, meaning that U.S. Arctic offshore drilling may remain tabled throughout Trump’s term. But his election may mean an easing of U.S. sanctions on Russia, which could lead to the re-entry of U.S. companies like ExxonMobil into the Russian Arctic offshore. Sanctions forced the company to exit from its joint drilling project with Russian oil company Rosneft in the Kara Sea in October 2014.

Trump’s triumph also presents a new roadblock to protesters and defenders of water rights in Standing Rock, North Dakota. President Obama, who has generally refrained from commenting on the issue, said last week that the government was “going to let it play out for several more weeks, and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.” While many have criticized Obama for his failure to intervene, Trump would probably ink a deal with Energy Transfer Partners in no time.

Neo-isolationism and the Arctic Council


Secretary of State John Kerry at an Arctic Council meeting. This probably won’t be repeated under Trump. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. is the current chair of the Arctic Council, which it has overseen under a motto of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities.” Trump’s “America First” agenda of neo-isolationism, however promises to roll back the country’s commitments to what are perceived as unnecessary overseas entanglements, from South Korea to Europe. The Arctic may be one such region where the incoming White House team chooses to downscale the country’s efforts. But still, Trump’s forthcoming inauguration on January 20, 2017 means that his administration will have to oversee the last four months of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship. The 10th Ministerial Meeting, where the U.S. will pass the baton to Finland, will take place on May 11 in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Obama Administration sent Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton to various Arctic meetings. They were the highest-ever ranking U.S. representatives to be involved in these forums. In contrast, Trump may send a low-ranking climate change skeptic in their stead and raise a banner of “America First” instead of “One Arctic.” Seriously, can you imagine one Trump’s supposed top picks for secretary of state, Newt Gingrich, going to an Arctic Circle meeting?

Regardless of who Trump sends (if anyone), most other Arctic states will probably agree that the chairmanship can’t pass to Finland soon enough. And after the U.S. chairmanship comes to a close, for the Arctic’s sake, a continuation of the historic U.S. negligence of northern affairs rather than active intervention by the Trump administration may be preferable.

Are there any silver linings?

More pipelines may be constructed under President Trump.

More pipelines and Arctic infrastructure in general may be constructed under President Trump. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Many Americans probably feel that they are living in an alternate universe whose Trumpian reality they refuse to believe. But his election must be accepted and met head-on. As Secretary Clinton remarked this morning during her concession speech, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” We must also look for some of the positives that may come out of the election for the Arctic.

  • U.S. Relations with Russia may well improve, which could enhance cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic. Trump suggested back in May that he would consider recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, and President Vladimir Putin was among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump.
  • Trump’s sub-Arctic roots: The tiny town of Bennett, British Columbia, where Trump’s German grandfather tried his hand at running a brothel and restaurant called the Arctic Hotel during the heady days of the Yukon Gold Rush, may see an influx of tourists. The Carcross Tagish First Nation has been planning to capitalize on the local Trump history and build a resort in what is now a ghost town.
  • Arctic infrastructure: Trump has vowed to spend “at least double” the $275 billion Hillary Clinton had proposed to spend on infrastructure over the next five years on projects such as roads, bridges, and ports. He’s also especially keen to build more pipelines, including Keystone XL, and “approve private sector energy infrastructure projects.”  While pipelines are a dead end in terms of leading towards an energy transition, at least their construction may temporarily employ people in places like Alaska.
  • Galvanizing popular action on climate: As my colleague Scott Stephenson wrote from the United Nations COP 22 conference in Marrakech, Morocco, protesters who had anticipated presenting a “presidential to-do list” on climate change hastily turned it into a “people’s to-do list.” This kind of attitude is healthy regardless of whether or not Clinton or Trump had been elected. Climate change is a global problem that cannot be solved by the U.S. president alone, no matter how great his illusions of grandeur are. Globe-spanning environmental issues must be tackled by the world’s people coming together. Trump may have divided the U.S. electorate during the campaign, but if his election serves to truly bring people together and galvanize the fight against climate change, then something positive may be made out of what many view as a devastatingly low moment in the history of America.

Since the Civil War, more liberal-minded Americans, often war resisters and draft dodgers, have fled to Canada. This may happen again, with Trump-loathing U.S. citizens crossing the border north for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s warm embrace. But for many concerned Americans, the choice is to stay home and work for a better country and a better Arctic – even though the road ahead may be long, tough, and frigid.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

Five ways the Dakota Access Pipeline affects the Arctic

Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Lars Plougmann/Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0

Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota have erupted this past week. For months, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies have been demonstrating at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers to stop the pipeline’s construction, which would cut through the tribe’s water resources and sacred lands with potentially damaging consequences. The $3.7 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline would carry oil fracked from the Bakken Formation across four states to a refinery outside Chicago. Fortune 500 company Energy Transfer Partners is overseeing the pipeline’s construction, which is planned to be able to move half of the oil coming out of the Bakken Formation every day.

Dakota Access Pipeline protests: No parallel in the Arctic

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has become a flash point for indigenous rights and climate change activism in a way that no recently proposed resource extraction project in the Arctic has. That’s not to say that there haven’t been significant environmental movements to halt industrial development in the Arctic. From 1979-1981, Sami and Norwegian protests attempted to stop the construction of the Alta Dam in Norway. The dam was eventually built, but protestors were successful in preventing a Sami village from being flooded. The construction of the $400 million Karahnjukar hydropower plant and aluminum smelter in Iceland in the mid-2000s also sparked a significant protest movement in Iceland that attracted global attention. Finally and more recently, 44 Greenpeace activists were arrested after scaling the Russian offshore oil platform Prirazlomnaya in 2014, while hundreds of protesters gathered in Seattle in 2015 to rally against Shell’s plans to drill in the Alaskan Arctic.

Yet at least in recent memory, no Arctic protest has captured global attention in the way that the movement against DAPL has. I’m not even sure if anyone waved a sign to protest the arrival of the Goliat floating production, storage, and off-loading unit when it arrived in Hammerfest last year to commence operations at the world’s northernmost drilling site in the Barents Sea. In a Barents Observer article from earlier this year, a politician from northern Norway admitted the difficulties with protesting Arctic oil drilling, especially in a country like his where the future of the enormous domestic oil industry lies to the north.

The firestorm that is #NoDAPL

While drilling in the European Arctic continues relatively under the radar, the #NoDAPL movement has gained enormous traction in the media and on the internet. The main protest site along the Missouri River has attracted celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, an actress whose arrest for trespassing and rioting garnered media headlines. Mark Ruffalo, who has made a considerable effort over the years to raise climate change awareness, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian asserting:

“Given this ongoing shift to clean energy – and the fact that renewables offer a more sustainable, more prosperous, and healthier future – it seems almost unbelievable that North Dakota authorities are spending energy and money violently defending a dying and dangerous system of energy production.”

North Dakotan authorities want a pipeline because it will supposedly make shipping oil out of the state safer. Since June 2012, more Bakken crude has been moved by rail than by pipeline due to a surge in production and resulting pipeline congestion. Rail cars heavy with fuel, however, are subject to explosion. Moving oil by pipeline is also cheaper, which is an important motivation for both oil and shipping companies as the price of oil continues to remain low. As this Wired article explains, two years ago, Energy Transfer Partners promised oil refiners that the pipeline would be completed by the end of this year in exchange for them agreeing to purchase oil shipped through it at rates set in 2014, back when oil hovered around $75 a barrel. If the pipeline is not completed on time, rates will have to be renegotiated and DAPL may no longer be such a lucrative project. Time is money when it comes to oil, and that’s why so many oil majors had to pull out of the Arctic once the price dropped below $80-$90 a barrel – said to be the range of the breakeven price for a barrel coming out of the north.

How a protest in North Dakota affects the Arctic


An oil rig floats offshore from the largely indigenous Canadian hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories. The Arctic is no stranger to oil and gas development. Photo: Mia Bennett

The Standing Rock protests shine a light on five issues that are key in Arctic development: indigenous rights, fossil fuel infrastructure, asymmetric protests, climate change, and unconventional oil. Many projects in the Arctic involve these controversial issues, including the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas project in Russia and the new highway to the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Thus, the protests in North Dakota have the potential to affect the Arctic. Here’s how.

1. Indigenous rights

A map of native lands and pipelines around the U.S.-Canada border

A map of native lands and pipelines around the U.S.-Canada border. Map by Cryopolitics.

Like many indigenous peoples in the Arctic, the Sioux suffer from poor health, pervasive unemployment, and low incomes. Shockingly in Sioux County, where the Standing Rock reservation is located, nearly 24,000 years of potential life are lost per 100,000 people compared to the North Dakota average of 6,305 (PDF of report). Reliance on local land and water resources in both North Dakota and the Arctic means that the environment requires safeguarding. And in the North American Arctic and the Lower 48, land is one thing that been guaranteed to many indigenous peoples through land claims agreements and settlements. The boundaries of Standing Rock were delineated in 1889 by the Dawes Act, a policy that had devastating consequences nationwide for Native Americans due to its attempt to break up the tribal system of societal organization. But it did guarantee them their rights to the land.

Even though many indigenous peoples now own and oversee their land in both Canada and America, industrial development on the outskirts of these protected areas is still putting pressure on them. As the map above shows, pipeline companies simply avoid having to deal with native land regulations by laying them right outside their jurisdictions. To be fair, these projects often give jobs to native people. But they can also wreak havoc on their environment and precious resources even though they do not directly cut through their land.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, however, would run directly through the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply. Protests there emerged first and foremost out of a concern among the natives, who are members of the Dakota and Lakota nations, for their water and land. “Water is life” is one of the movement’s main slogans. Last week, 50 demonstrators were arrested for sitting and blocking the pipeline’s construction in land that the Sioux consider theirs, but which technically belongs to Energy Transfer Partners. A court injunction in October denied the tribe’s request to halt construction of the pipeline through what they claim to be sacred grounds.

Pipelines placed anywhere near a water source are risky. Oil sands extraction in Alberta has polluted the Athabasca River, which supports many indigenous communities and ultimately flows to the Arctic Ocean. And in the Arctic itself, the countless number of ponds, streams, and rivers in the boggy tundra mean that pollution of a water source might be even less easily contained. Pipelines seem like quiet and sturdy infrastructures, but the protests in North Dakota are attempting to show that if one thing goes wrong, an entire way of life could be jeopardized.

2. The proliferation of fossil fuel infrastructure

If built, DAPL will perpetuate the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure across North America. While politicians in forums like the COP 22 meeting convening this month in Morocco talk about the need for states to lower greenhouse gas emissions, new pipelines continue to be bolted into the ground. Brand-new liquefied natural gas terminals are being constructed as well, particularly in the U.S. In December 2015, a glut of American-produced oil and gas led to the lifting of a 40-year ban on exporting U.S. oil. Now, American crude exports are “reshaping the world’s energy map,” according to Bloomberg.

Even if protestors and native groups are able to halt the construction of pipelines that would cross native land in the Lower 48 and Canadian provinces, a large amount of infrastructure is slated to be constructed in the Arctic in the coming years. If DAPL protestors are successful in stopping the pipeline’s construction, however, this might make project such as the proposed Alaska liquefied natural gas pipeline appear to be a less economically secure investments if protests, especially those organized by indigenous peoples with land claims, could threaten the ability to finish construction in a timely and profitable manner.

3. Social movements that unite indigenous and environmental activists on a global scale

The NoDAPL movement is a magnet for indigenous and environmental activists because it concerns issues dear to both movement’s hearts. Surprisingly, this is contrary to the Arctic, where many development projects are seen in a more black and white frame. The protests against Arctic offshore oil, for instance, have typically been about preventing climate change rather than protecting indigenous interests. Many indigenous groups in the Alaskan Arctic actually have a material stake in offshore drilling due to the fact that they own corporations with vested interests in the industry.

But if there were an issue in the Arctic like DAPL that attracted the interests of both indigenous and environmental activists, it could be a lightning rod for global dissidents to come and support the movement. The events in North Dakota show that not all locals are happy about out-of-state and foreign activists coming to ally themselves with the cause. CNN interviewed members of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, including one man who complained about the non-local protesters he said were responsible for inciting violence. “It irks me. People are here from all over the world,” he remarked. “If they could come from other planets, I think they would.”

If a protest were to arise in the Arctic, it would generally be less feasible for allies and supporters of the movement to travel to the site given the sheer costs of getting up north. The movement in Iceland against the Karahnjukar project, which mainly focused on environmental issues, managed to attract many international protesters. There was even an organized “Summer of International Dissent against Heavy Industry” in 2007 that featured concerts and free vegan food for international dissenters. But just as in Standing Rock, many places in the Arctic simply cannot handle the sheer volume of people who might come thinking they are helping local causes when they are actually straining local resources.

4. Gas flaring and climate change

Night light satellite imagery reveals the prominence of gas flaring in the Bakken Oil Fields and Athabasca Oil Sands and its proximity to the Arctic.

Night light satellite imagery reveals the prominence of gas flaring in the Bakken Oil Fields and Athabasca Oil Sands and its proximity to the Arctic.

While it’s easy to see DAPL as the site of a relatively localized project and protest, its construction would have knock-on effects on other regions, including the Arctic. If DAPL is built, it will help secure and encourage the continued projection of oil from the Bakken formation. This could be perilous for the Arctic, as a NASA study found that every year between 2000 and 2015, nitrogen dioxide emissions increased 1.5% at Bakken and 2% over the Athabasca oil sands in Canada. Both Bakken and Athabasca are high-latitude oil fields whose emissions can exacerbate Arctic warming. Many of the pollutants they release into the atmosphere come from the wasteful practice of gas flaring, which is done to get rid of excess oil that cannot be economically shipped to market. The bright lights of gas flares can even be seen from space. The above map shows how the polluting gas flares over the Bakken and Athabasca oil fields are some of the closest major areas of industrial development to the Arctic. If the knock-on consequences of the DAPL protests mean that Bakken production is slowed, Arctic warming may be, too.

5. The rise of unconventional oil

On the other hand, let’s say the protests are successful in stopping DAPL and Bakken production does slow. This could push producers to look to other resource frontiers, such as the Arctic. As easy-to-access oil has dried up over the past few decades outside of the Middle East, tapping into unconventional oil resources has becoming more commonplace. Fracking is becoming an accepted way of dredging up more of the black stuff from deep underground. Deepwater oil in the Gulf of Mexico is also considered unconventional, as is Arctic oil. Since at least 2008, North American Arctic oil, especially in Canada where there is even less infrastructure to get product out to market than in Alaska, has been on the back burner. This is partly due to the glut created by the Bakken boom, which has made Arctic oil impossible to profitably extract. But if Bakken were to suddenly cease production (an unlikely proposition, but let’s just hypothesize) and prices were to go back up, Arctic oil could potentially be more attractive.

From North Dakota to the Arctic

The plains of North Dakota may seem a long way away from the Arctic Ocean. But while no project so far has yet united environmental and indigenous movements in the same electrifying manner in the Arctic, many of the underlying conditions in the North – an indigenous people with rights to land who still feel neglected, vulnerability to pollution and climate change, and the dominance of the extractive industries – are the same. The NoDAPL movement doesn’t seem to be letting up and protestors have vowed to stay through winter. Ultimately, it may be the longer staying power of the movement in North Dakota, which is centrally located within the U.S., reachable by car, and, while cold, not insanely so in winter, which allows the NoDAPL protests to succeed. In the Arctic, similar movements might eventually have to come in from the cold.