Skip to main content

Potential ramifications to Indigenous Peoples of an Arctic oil spill

June 27, 2019


Bridget Ovall

The Arctic Ocean is opening up: sea ice is diminishing and access is increasing. The extent of summer sea ice has been decreasing by about 13% per decade since the 1980’s. The increasing expanse of open water exposes previously isolated ecosystems to a risk of pollution. Possibly the most devastating pollution-related event would be an oil spill. Smaller oil spills involve the fuel tank of an individual vessel, some risk of which is inherent in every ship on the water. Total risk increases with the number of ships. The risk of massive oil spills is of particular concern. This risk comes along with oil tankers and offshore drilling rigs. The opportunity for both types of oil spill is increasing in the Arctic due to increased ship traffic and increased accessibility of marine oil reserves. It is estimated that, of the remaining oil to be discovered on the planet, 13% is in the Arctic. Through 2004, more than 84 billion barrels of oil had been removed from the Arctic region (including land-based operations), the vast majority of that by Russia. As other reserves become depleted, the cost of oil increases; as accessibility of the Arctic region increases, the motivation to exploit Arctic reserves will also increase. Environmental damage from massive oil spills is long-lasting and often irreversible. The effects on the local populations that depend on natural resources for their way of life are devastating. What can we do to mitigate the damages to residents, especially Indigenous peoples, when an oil spill occurs in the Arctic?

The first thing we must do is understand the damages. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 provided some powerful lessons on the complexities of responding to massive oil spills. Researchers also took the opportunity to learn more about the effects of this type of disaster on human populations. In a cross-sectional study of impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Louisiana community members, Cope et al. found more negative health impacts for those involved in the fishing industry than any others (including oil industry workers). They also found that negative psychological impacts on fishers were worse one year after the event. In a similar study that followed up for several years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Parks et al. found that the lives of fishing industry personnel were the most disrupted. Additionally, while the disruption had lessened over time, many people were still experiencing disruption three years after the event. Fishermen were still dealing with contaminated fishing grounds and customers unsure about food safety.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989 demonstrates the long-term effects an oil spill can have on communities. After studying the fallout of the disaster for 25 years, Gill et al. summarize their findings. As oil coated beaches and smothered wildlife, the devastation was astounding, but the full effects would take years to become evident. The remote area around Prince William Sound was heavily dependent on commercial fishing. The cascade of effects from the oil spill lead to collapse of the herring population in 1993, which had still not recovered as of 2016. In fact, only about half of the species injured due to the spill had recovered.

Gill et al. also report that a persistent stressor on the community has been litigation. The residents won compensation for their losses in 1994, but Exxon spent the next 14 years appealing the initial award. The final Supreme Court ruling did not come until 2008, nearly 20 years after the event. Through all of that time, oil also has persisted on many of the beaches around Prince William Sound. It sits just below the surface in the mid-intertidal zone. The mid-intertidal zone is the area of the beach that sits above water at low tide and far enough below water at high tide to not be disturbed by surface waves. Lindeberg et al. found that the amount of this subsurface oil on beaches has not changed since 2001. As such, it is expected to remain indefinitely.

Although the effects on communities dependent on commercial fishing have been severe and long-lasting, the effects on Indigenous populations have been even more profound. Culturally, Indigenous peoples tend to see themselves as part of the environment, just one piece like the land, the sea and the animals. When an environmental disaster occurs, it is deeply personal – not damage outside but damage within. This perspective frames the effect of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the Alutiiq community. Erikson describes their hunting and fishing practices as cultural experiences, food-gathering as kinship and community-building experiences. Every harvest is a spiritual event as the Earth offers up life to the people. The oil killed much of the marine life, and continued to for a long time. It also killed terrestrial animals who came to scavenge the dead washed ashore. The Earth no longer offered up life, only death.

Erikson also points out how clear it was that many of those in charge did not understand or respect the worldview of the Alutiiq. Particularly insulting was one official’s relief that there had been no loss of life. Additionally, as Native Alaskans fought their own legal case for compensation of losses, the judge ruled that he would only hear testimony on economic damages. The actual damages went far beyond monetary loss. How could they continue to be Alutiiq without gathering shellfish on the beach? How could their children learn to be Alutiiq without the community harvest and sharing of food?     

The current plans for dealing with an oil spill in the Arctic are insufficient. While the members of the Arctic Council have an agreement to cooperate and share information in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic, each country is left to determine the details of its own preparedness level. Individual countries also have their own regulations for environmental assessment and safety requirements for drilling projects. Gulas et al. explore the differences in environmental assessments and safety requirements for oil projects in the various Arctic nations. Most countries require a site-based Environmental Impact Assessment, but Norway requires a broader Strategic Environmental Assessment. Some countries require projects to have an Oil Spill Response Plan in place, while others do not. Spill response equipment may be required on site, set up in central locations within the region, or not mentioned at all in regulations. Most countries have governmental entities/military units in charge of spill response, while Russia has a private company designated for response. As such, potential for problems and ability to rectify them vary across the region.

Currently, the United States and Canada have effective bans on Arctic drilling, and conservation groups in Norway have recently gained ground in their efforts to reduce Arctic drilling. While these actions are helpful in reducing risk, they are only effective as long as states maintain the course. Oil prices are currently low, so there is little motivation to seek new sources. However, the next time oil prices soar, there will be renewed political pressure to increase oil drilling in the Arctic. Regardless, there is still risk from existing drilling projects and increasing ship traffic.

The Arctic nations have been making progress, albeit slowly, in developing a protocol for dealing with an oil spill in the Arctic. According to Nevalainen et al., this region poses several obstacles to cleanup which current protocols cannot address. The presence of sea ice interferes with the ability to physically contain and collect surface oil. Cold temperatures make it difficult to ignite and maintain a fire to burn off surface oil, and melting ice opens up more space for the oil to spread out (making burning less effective). Biodegradation of oil is slower in cold environments. On top of that, temperatures around -30°C, months of constant darkness, and the complete inaccessibility due to sea ice mean that there would be nothing that could be done about an oil spill in the winter in many areas.

Prevention of spills is critical, but eventually there will be a large oil spill in the Arctic. Even as work done to develop new ways of dealing with oil spills in the Arctic, the solutions sought will still only deal with the environmental cleanup. They do not address the human component. We must have a plan in place to assist local residents whose lives and livelihoods will be catastrophically damaged in the event of a massive oil spill. There must be resources available to assist them immediately. This plan must address long-term and permanent damages without decades of legal battles. Most importantly, it must be a wholistic approach that views damage as far greater than monetary. The worldview of Indigenous peoples must be at the center of this plan.

It is my recommendation that a proactive recovery system be put into place. This system should start with a trust set up to financially compensate residents who are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods and cultural foundation. The trust should be funded by fees imposed on every oil related project that touches the Arctic as well as every ship that passes through the Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas. The most important part of the system, though, should be a plan for maintaining cultural identity and community cohesiveness of Indigenous groups whose way of life will be irreversibly altered by a massive oil spill. This plan may include shifting tribal focus onto hunting, fishing, and gathering practices that are less likely to be impacted by an oil spill. It may also include setting up a network where Indigenous groups affected by environmental disasters can share their experiences with each other. My suggestions, however, are based on my perspective as a non-Indigenous person. For this recovery system to be effective, it would need to be developed and implemented by Indigenous groups.



Arctic Council (2013). Agreement on cooperation on marine oil pollution preparedness and response in the Arctic.

Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme [AMAP] (2007). Assessment 2007: Oil and gas activities in the Arctic – Effects and potential effects.

CBC News (2016, Dec. 20). Trudeau announces review of Arctic strategy, joint drilling ban with U.S. CBC News. Retrieved from

Cope, M. R., Slack, T., Blanchard, T. C., & Lee, M. R. (2013). Does time heal all wounds? Community attachment, natural resource employment, and health impacts in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. Social Science Research, 42(3), 872-881.

Davenport, S. (2019, March 30). Trump’s order to open Arctic waters to oil drilling was unlawful, Federal Judge Finds. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Gautier, D. L., Bird, K. J., Charpentier, R. R., Grantz, A., Houseknecht, D. W., Klett, T. R., … & Sørensen, K. (2009). Assessment of undiscovered oil and gas in the Arctic. Science, 324(5931), 1175-1179.

Gill, D. A., Ritchie, L. A., & Picou, J. S. (2016). Sociocultural and psychosocial impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill: Twenty-four years of research in Cordova, Alaska. The Extractive Industries and Society, 3(4), 1105-1116.

Gulas, S., Downton, M., D’Souza, K., Hayden, K., & Walker, T. R. (2017). Declining Arctic Ocean oil and gas developments: Opportunities to improve governance and environmental pollution control. Marine Policy, 75, 53-61.

Erikson, K. (2017). It seemed like the whole bay died. In The Sociologist’s Eye: Reflections on Social Life (Chapter 13). Yale University Press.

Lindeerg, M. R., Maselko, J., Heintz, R. A., Fugate, C. J., & Holland, L. (2018). Conditions of persistent oil on beaches in Prince William Sound 26 years after the Exxon Valdez spill. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, 147, 9-19.

Nevalainen, M., Helle, I., & Vanhatalo, J. (2017). Preparing for the unprecedented—Towards quantitative oil risk assessment in the Arctic marine areas. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 114(1), 90-101.

Parks, V., Drakeford, L., Cope, M. R., & Slack, T. (2018). Disruption of routine behaviors following the deepwater horizon oil spill. Society & Natural Resources, 31(3), 277-290.

Serreze, M. C., & Stroeve, J. (2015). Arctic sea ice trends, variability and implications for seasonal ice forecasting. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 373(2045), 20140159.

Schober, K. (2019, April 10). Oil drilling in part of Norway’s Arctic just became a lot less likely. Arctic Today. Retrieved from