Seismic Testing For Arctic Oil Will Deafen Whales

Chris Williams and Jerry Natanine say the testing will locate new drilling sites for fossil fuels that we shouldn’t even be burning

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The Arctic has been called the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. It is considered an early warning harbinger of what’s to come elsewhere on the planet. And like other places on the planet, the Arctic has been breaking temperature records this summer with the Arctic circle hitting upwards of 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 in Fahrenheit. The Arctic is also vulnerable and significant ecosystem for its role in mitigating climate change worldwide. Our next guests are currently in transit en route to the Canadian Arctic on a collaborative mission between Greenpeace and Clyde River. Clyde River is a remote Inuit community located on the shores of Baffin Island in the northern territory of Nunavut, where the small community of 1,000 people is battling against a consortium of international oil and gas corporations and the Canadian government, who have approved seismic blasting in the nearby Baffin Bay. The renowned Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson will be joining them there to draw attention to this issue.

So with us on board the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise are our guests, Jerry Natanine and Chris Williams. Jerry Natanine, who is the former mayor of Clyde River, which is an autonomous territory of Nunavut, and who is also leading the legal battle to protect Inuit waters from harms of the seismic testing, and we’re going to find out what that is in a few minutes. And also joining us is Professor Chris Williams of Pace University Department of Physics and longtime environmental activist. And as you know, he’s on the Real News regularly. He’s also the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist-led Ecological Crises.

I am very privileged to have you both on the Real News Network. Thank you both for joining us.

JERRY NATANINE: Thank you very much for having us on, Sharmini.

PERIES: So, Jerry, what is seismic testing and how is it affecting your community?

NATANINE: The companies that want to do seismic testing, they want to do it out far the coast, where the whales, [inaud.] whales, different kind of whales, walruses, while they winter. And while they winter in [inaud.] open waters that are open during the winter. So when the other part of the Arctic is frozen, all these mammals, they go to these [inaud.] to winter. And in the summertime, springtime, when the ice breaks up, they all migrate to the different regions of the Arctic. And that’s how important this area is. And they want seismic testing, they want to do seismic[ing] on this area, for five years.

And we live off the animals, and hunting and gathering is our cultural practice that we’ve been doing for thousands of years. And they’re going to have a negative effect on these mammals.

PERIES: Right. And Chris, can you give us some insight into what is seismic testing, and what is the significance of this testing taking place in the Arctic, where the ecosystem might be disrupted?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah, the seismic testing is in order to locate oil and gas. The exact substances that we don’t need any more of. We already know we can’t burn 80 percent of what we’ve already found, let alone going to find some more. So this should be a practice that we actually don’t do anymore.

But what it is is you have an airgun underwater towed by a ship that sends a giant blast of air that is equivalent, almost equivalent, to TNT exploding. Because if you think about it, it’s going to be a soundwave that travels all the way through hundreds of meters of water, and then hundreds of meters of rock below the ocean, in order to bounce back to the ship and the array of detectors that the ship carries behind it, 2-3 kilometers long. And that signal then has to be, is analyzed to see if the density differences below the subsurface of the ocean will bounce back and show that there is liquid oil or gas there, and therefore be a place where Canada or international companies could then start drilling for the oil and gas that they find.

So that’s what the legal fight revolves kind of around. Jerry can talk about that more than I can. But that’s what they hope to be doing. They postponed it for a couple of years while the legal battles continued. A couple have been won. And now it’s before the Supreme Court of Canada. So it hasn’t happened yet, but as Jerry is saying, if it starts to happen then it’s not just a question of affecting all the marine life that lives there, essentially deafening whales. And you know, if you think about what we use, one of our most important senses is sight, but to marine mammals it’s sound. And so if you set off that level of sound underwater it can deafen them, it can totally disorient them. There have been beachings as a result. They get trapped in ice. They move away from the areas that they traditionally are in to avoid the sound.

And this is how it goes on, they do these air blasts from the ships every ten seconds, 24/7, for weeks or even months at a time. And it travels huge distances. So this is a massive degree of invasion of the underwater realm, with sound that, for creatures that depend on sound for pretty much all of their life processes, certain sort of reproduction, communication, avoiding predators, finding prey, everything to do with staying alive they do through sound. And so they would be completely disorientated by this practice, which is a practice the point of which is, I don’t think I can emphasize this enough, to drill and find for more of the fossil fuels that we know that we shouldn’t be burning even what we know about, let alone finding more of.

PERIES: Right. So, Jerry, let’s talk about, of course, the disruptions to the ecological life, sea life, in the Arctic. But this is also, as you said, Jerry, disrupting the life and well-being and the economy of the indigenous population in your community. And we thought in Canada that with electing Justin Trudeau’s government, where a Harper government was very hostile to the indigenous communities and their rights, in fact the Canadian government under the Harper administration never signed on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People that protects some of these communities and their environment. But after Justin Trudeau came to power they finally signed the declaration, and we thought that was a new chapter when it came to indigenous peoples. But that’s not the case, because they’re continuing to approve the seismic testing in your community.

Give us a sense of the court case underway, and where it stands, and whether you think the Supreme Court decision is going to be in your favor, given that Canada is now signatory to this declaration.

NATANINE: Yes. Our case right now is against the Supreme Court. And our main argument is that the [agreement] that was signed, that’s our basic argument. That’s our first argument that we’re going to put forward. And we’re really hopeful that when the Liberals were, when they got into power, we were hopeful that they were going to side with us, and that they were going to put a stop to this. But as it turned out they haven’t, and we’ve still got to fight it in court, unfortunately.

But we’re very hopeful. And we have wide support all over the world. And our arguments are sound, and what the companies have done when they were consulting the communities is [inaud.]. They didn’t answer any questions, and they didn’t do proper consultations. And that’s the main argument that we have against this.

And just now, two weeks ago, our prime minister, he approved an [oil dispersion] that could be used when there’s an oil spill. And you know, that scared me, because I thought, you’re not always asking [inaud.] does he want to drill for oil? I hope it’s not in our waters. And even though I’m very optimistic that we’re going to win this case, there’s always something in the back of my mind saying he thinks that the Arctic is the middle of nowhere, and he probably thinks that that’s where we should drill for oil if we’re going to. And I hope and pray that it doesn’t go that way, but we’ll have to wait and see.

PERIES: And Chris, you are on board the ship, Greenpeace ship, and you are headed to Jerry’s community, Clyde River. You are looking forward to installing a number of solar panels in order to sustain the community there. But this area, part of the world, is really a land of the midnight sun, they say, in the summer months. But it isn’t also the sunniest place on earth. Will the solar power being installed by all of you, which is a great community effort, will it actually succeed?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it’s a great way of showing that if we, if the community doesn’t want seismic blasting and wants to move away from fossil fuels, then there is an alternative. Because everything that is flown up to Clyde River, diesel fuel, food, the prices are extortionate. It’s really expensive. And so aside from providing free electricity, it takes you away from one of the causes of climate change, and illustrates–I think it’s a really important symbol of the fact that if solar power can be provided to such a remote community successfully, then where else can it be used?

I mean, if we can have solar energy in the far north, above the Arctic Circle, then why the hell aren’t we building solar plants everywhere? Clearly it’s not the complete answer for anybody, it’s certainly not the complete answer for Clyde River, because as you mentioned, it’s dark for part of the year. But actually, solar panels work better in colder weather, because it’s not really the heat you want, it’s the light. So as long as the sun is shining, which it does 24/7 for part of the year, then you’ve got enormous quantities of solar energy. So if you have backup generators, but if you compliment that with other forms of renewable energy, which is certainly doable now that we have technology for low-temperature wind turbines, for example, but there’s also wind–I’m sorry, there’s also wave power that we could utilize, could be utilized.

And so I think a combination of renewable power is totally feasible. And if it’s feasible here for, as I said, a small, remote community, then all of the remote communities around North America, around the world, could take this as a beacon of hope to say, well, we are actually–it’s not just that we’re against fossil fuels, but we also have a genuine alternative. And it’s up to the Canadian government, because the total Inuit community across Nunavut is about 30,000 people, so if the Canadian government is really serious about redressing historical wrongs, the solution would be a drop in the bucket for the government in terms of providing genuine renewable energy and so much else that they say in all these documents, all these fine words, Obama and Trudeau just signed an Arctic agreement guaranteeing the rights of indigenous, and all this other fantastic language.

But where is the reality on the ground? They’re doing the opposite of what they say they want to do. They’re not consulting with the people who live there. And so that’s the basis of, as Jerry was saying, that’s the basis of the legal campaigns. But there are other things that Greenpeace and the Inuit community are working on. One thing is transporting these solar panels to put upon the community center. Everybody knows it’s not the complete solution, but it will save, actually, thousands of dollars a year for Clyde River, which is a not insubstantial sum given the levels of inequality and other social markers of inequity that exist in Clyde River and throughout Nunavut, actually, as a result of ongoing injustice that extends back hundreds of years.

PERIES: Right. Jerry and Chris, I thank you so much for joining us. This is an incredible breakthrough to be able to do this interview while you are on the Greenpeace ship, headed to Clyde River. And also we’re looking forward to a report back on how the installations are going. This is a monumental project and the effort of community collaborating with technology and with those who are working so hard on the very important issue of climate change and the protection of our Arctic.

So I thank you all for being a part of the interview today, and all the best with the project, and we look forward to ongoing reports.

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

NATANINE: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network, and stay tuned, I guess, for the next report coming up. We’re going to be continuing to report on what’s happening on the ship, as well as in the community, the Aboriginal community in Clyde River. Thank you.

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