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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Perfect Storm: Environmental Justice and Air Quality Impacts of Offshore Oil and Gas Development in the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf


The Arctic Outer Continental Shelf is the next great legal battleground over oil and gas resources, environmental protection, and environmental justice.  The Arctic is home to an array of sensitive ecological resources and a large Native Alaskan population that relies heavily on the natural environment for food and supplies.  The Arctic Ocean also holds a vast amount of untapped oil and gas resources that had previously been largely inaccessible because of harsh climatic conditions and withdrawals of large swaths of the Shelf by Congress and multiple presidents.  However, climate change is melting Arctic sea ice and opening up previously inaccessible areas.  In addition, President Trump is pushing to expand oil and gas development everywhere, including the Arctic.  If President Trump’s plans prevail against the many legal challenges seeking to protect the Arctic, Native Alaskans will face a multitude of threats to their health, safety, and way of life.

Scholars, journalists, and environmental groups have already illuminated the threats of oil spills and climate change.  This Comment focuses on a less discussed impact of offshore oil and gas development: air pollution and its effects on Native Alaskans.  Onshore oil and gas development has already been polluting the air of Alaskan communities, causing increases in respiratory illnesses and other health problems, and leading to climate change, which is disrupting the natural environment upon which Native Alaskans depend for food and supplies.  A new era of offshore development would amplify these problems and create new and unique challenges that disproportionately burden Native Alaskan communities.

This Comment makes two novel contributions.  First, it illuminates the erratic history and disjointed nature of air quality regulation on the Outer Continental Shelf.  Second, this Comment highlights how the federal government’s current regulatory structure for offshore air emissions uniquely fails Native Alaskans who are seeking to protect their health and way of life.  In addition, this Comment makes some recommendations for statutory and regulatory changes to better address the environmental justice impacts of air pollution from offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic.

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