Willow oil project gets mostly warm welcome in Alaska
Environmental groups continue their crusade against the plan
Rep. Josiah Patkotak defines comfort food as bearded seal, caribou, and other such Alaskan delicacies. He and his family have eaten off the land in the northernmost part of Alaska for generations. The community has fallen victim to outside agendas before, but Patkotak says the government’s latest plan for oil drilling in the area is not one of those times.
On March 13, the Biden administration approved three new oil drilling sites, or pads, on federal land on the Alaskan North Slope. Environmental activists decried the plan as a “carbon bomb” and accused President Joe Biden of reversing campaign promises to end new drilling on federal lands. Climate protesters interrupted an event in Washington on March 14, preventing White House National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi from speaking at a conservation summit.
Bipartisan lawmakers and several Alaska Native tribes living on the North Slope say the ConocoPhillips Willow oil project is a necessary and even helpful economic boon. Doreen Leavitt, director of natural resources for the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, noted that most of the anger against the project “comes from the Lower 48.”
This week, plaintiffs from a range of conservation and Indigenous groups filed two lawsuits against the U.S. Interior Department to demand a halt to construction on the project. The conflict shows how the Biden administration is struggling to reconcile far-reaching climate promises with current economic pressures.
The National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska encompasses 23.4 million acres in the northern part of the state. Houston-based ConocoPhillips, the largest crude oil producer in the state, has leased federal lands in the region from the government since 1999. The corporation asked the Trump administration for five new drilling pads. But in 2021 an Alaskan federal court revoked former President Donald Trump’s approval, saying an accompanying environmental analysis was not thorough enough.
After lobbying for a few years and adapting the proposal to accommodate new environmental studies, ConocoPhillips came back to the Biden administration, and the Interior Department ultimately approved three drilling pads spanning roughly 500 acres. This will add about 200 wells for the company to extract and refine crude oil, petroleum, and natural gas. The approval also gives ConocoPhillips the greenlight to construct more than 25 miles of gravel roads and an airstrip. The company will maintain hundreds of miles of ice roads.
The anticipated 600 million barrels of oil from the Willow project won’t hit the market for several more years. ConocoPhillips estimates the project will produce roughly 2,500 jobs and a combined local, state, and federal revenue between $8 and $17 billion. According to the government’s environmental review, the extra drilling will also create 263 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years.
In 2021, Biden promised to halve U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. He also set a goal to produce 80 percent of the nation’s electricity without fossil fuels by then. But then he depleted the Strategic Petroleum Reserves by 266 million barrels, most after the onset of the Ukraine-Russia war.
Just days after the Willow project was approved, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its annual “survival guide for humanity.” Activist organizations like Earthjustice latched onto the report’s dire warnings to argue that the Biden administration has a responsibility to stop carbon emissions as soon as possible. In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, they argue that the Willow project would harm area wildlife like caribou and that the Biden administration did not consider other negative environmental effects before approval.
Another lawsuit claims the Bureau of Land Management did not follow the right procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act before approving Willow. The Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, and Trustees for Alaska say the drilling and construction will hurt the environment and wildlife that Alaska Natives, like the Native Village of Nuiqsut, use to survive.
Nuiqsut former mayor and current city council member Rosemary Ahtuangaruak sent a joint letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet position, asking her to reject the plan. Other “villages get some financial benefits from oil and gas activity but experience far fewer impacts than Nuiqsut,” the letter stated. “We are at ground zero for the industrialization of the Arctic.”
But other tribes say Willow will improve, not impede, daily life. Leavitt, who also serves on a tribal council representing eight North Slope villages, says development has modernized the area with running water and electricity. Residents still struggle with housing shortages. Most also live at least a day’s journey from any major store and rely on diesel to heat their homes. She hopes that more development and jobs will continue to improve the quality of life in the northern regions.
Nagruk Harcharek is president of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, based in Utqiagvik. He told Alaska Public Media that Willow will bring economic benefits—and not at the cost of their homeland.
“The subsistence Iñupiaq lifestyle that we live is … the most important for us,” he said. “So if there was ever a project that we thought would negatively impact that, in ways that would be irreparable, we would not be in support of that project.”
Patkotak agrees. He formerly served on the 12-member North Slope Borough Assembly, the governing body responsible for 95,000 square miles of Alaska’s northernmost regions. Patkotak told me ConocoPhillips had to go through rigorous permitting procedures from the borough in addition to the federal negotiations. The company plans to build pull-off points along its road to the drilling sites for subsistence hunters—who make up the majority of households in the region—to access caribou herds more easily.
Biden said during a visit to Canada last week that he had “strong inclinations” to reject the Willow project but had to rubber stamp it due to legal reasons. But Zaidi told environmentalists that they need to slowly phase out fossil fuels, not remove them immediately. On the same day the approval was announced, the administration released a new conservation plan that cordons off 3 million acres of the Arctic Ocean from drilling and imposes new protections on millions of acres elsewhere in Alaska.
Alaskan lawmakers have been more optimistic. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowksi and Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, lobbied for the Willow project. Peltola said rather than harming the environment, Willow helps the long-term goal of switching to clean energy while at the same time boosting Alaskan communities.
“It’s important to know the permitting process in Alaska takes into account the needs and concerns of the local people,” Patkotak said. “We’ve always had to strike that balance between that and the Western world’s dollar-based economy. But we have a long history of dealing with the federal government when they’ve made a decision in Washington without consultation or even regard for what it would do to us.”
Patkotak recalled bans on whale hunting, duck hunting, or previous emissions rules that were sparked by a global problem but created specific problems for Alaskan people. He said that even though the Willow drilling will increase emissions, his state prides itself on cleaner drilling processes than the rest of the country. He said any global concerns about climate change need to result in global discussion and solutions, not targeted change that would hurt his community.
“We’ve long been a region that has been victim to global initiatives,” he said. “But we’re not victims right now.”
The North Slope Borough and the Alaska Legislature have filed friend of the court briefs in support of the federal government in both lawsuits. ConocoPhillips has paused gravel mining and road-building while District Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage considers the two lawsuits, but only until April 4. It can only build during the winter season because it needs the ice roads for transportation. The season is expected to end by late April.
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