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Alaskan Wins Environmental Prize for Opposing Offshore Drilling

Deborah Block

Alaskan tribal leader Caroline Cannon has won a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for battling to keep offshore oil and gas drilling out of Arctic waters. The annual award is given to six outstanding grassroots environmentalists from different regions of the world.  Cannon, the North American winner, is concerned that an oil spill would threaten her remote village and its traditional way of life.

Saving her village traditions means everything to community activist Caroline Cannon.  This includes the annual hunt for one bowhead whale, in which villagers use wood-framed boats covered with seal skins.  Cannon is from Point Hope, a coastal community of 700 Inupiat people in northern Alaska.  She says their lives revolve around the whale.

“We have the graveyard site, that’s been there hundreds of years, that was built with whale bones.  And I particularly like the ice cellar - we call it the salon - where we store away our food, and it’s covered with permafrost, it’s underground, and it’s built with whale bone,” Cannon said.

In recent years, there’s been growing national interest in opening the Arctic waters to oil and gas development.  Cannon says she’s not against drilling, but doesn’t think oil and gas companies could contain an oil spill in the Arctic - even if they say they can. Since the sea is frozen half the year, she says an oil spill could last for months, destroying the ecosystem.  

“There’s no technology on how to clean an oil spill out in the Arctic.  They have not done an actual cleanup in that kind of an environment,” Cannon said.

Cannon says she’d be “more than willing” to support oil exploration if the companies could prove there was a safe way to contain an oil spill.  She's been involved in lawsuits to stop oil drilling in the Arctic.  She also taken her fight to lawmakers in Washington.

“The Arctic is such a beautiful place, it’s untouched.  They always refer to Alaska, 'as the last frontier.'  That’s so meaningful for me,” Cannon said.

Some residents of Point Hope want the oil companies to come in because there would be jobs.  Federal regulators have approved the Shell Oil company’s spill response plans in the region, meaning the company might be able to drill soon.    For Cannon, that would be devastating.

“I know I’m going to lose some sleep, but I know I gave it the best I knew how.  I gave it all I had.  So that’s what’s going to count.  It’s a scary thought,” Cannon said.

Cannon, like the other five winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, also received $150,000.  She says she will give money to the village to help protect its lifestyle.

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