Approval of Willow oil project intensifies rift among Indigenous AlaskansMARK THIESSEN and MATTHEW BROWN
March 17, 2023
The Biden administrations approval this week of the biggest oil drilling project in Alaska in decades promises to widen a rift among Indigenous Alaskans, with some saying that oil money can’t counter the damage caused by climate change and others defending the project as economically vital.
Two lawsuits filed almost immediately by environmentalists and one
Native group are likely to exacerbate tensions that have built up over years of debate about ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow project.
Many communities on Alaskas North Slope celebrated the project’s approval, citing new jobs and the influx of money that will help support schools, other public services and infrastructure investments in their isolated villages. Just a few decades ago, many villages had no running water, said Doreen Leavitt, director of natural resources for the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope. Housing shortages continues to be a problem, with multiple generations often living together in one home, she said.
We still have a long ways to go. We don’t want to go backwards, Leavitt said.
She said 50 years of oil production on the petroleum-rich North Slope has shown that development can coexist with wildlife and the traditional, subsistence way of life.
Biden approves huge Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska
But some Alaska Natives blasted the decision to greenlight the project, and they are supported by environmental groups challenging the approval in federal court.
The acrimony toward the project was underscored in a letter written earlier this month by three leaders in the Nuiqsut community, who described their remote village as ground zero for industrialization of the Arctic. They addressed the letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexicos Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to lead a Cabinet department.
They cited the threat that climate change poses to caribou migrations and to their ability to travel across once-frozen areas. Money from the ConocoPhillips project won’t be enough to mitigate those threats, they said. The community is about 36 miles from the Willow project.
They are payoffs for the loss of our health and culture, the Nuiqsut leaders wrote. No dollar can replace what we risk. … It is a matter of our survival.
But Asisaun Toovak, the mayor of Utqiavik, the nation’s northernmost community on the Arctic Ocean, told the AP that she jumped for joy when she heard the Biden administration
I could say that the majority of the people,
The majority of our community and the majority of the people were excited about the Willow Project, she said.
As Biden weighs Willow, he blocks other Alaska oil drilling
Willow is in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a vast region on Alaskas resource-rich North Slope that is roughly the size of Maine. It would produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day,
the use of
would result in at least 263 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, according to a federal environmental review.
The Sovereign Iupiat for a Living Arctic, Sierra Club and other groups that sued Tuesday said Interior officials ignored the fact that every ton of greenhouse gas emitted by the project would contribute to sea ice melt, which endangers polar bears and Alaska villages. A second lawsuit seeking to block the project was filed Wednesday by Greenpeace and other environmental groups.
For Alaska Natives to reconcile their points of view with one another, it will take discussions. We just continue to try to sit at the table together, break bread and meet as a region,” said Leavitt, who also is the secretary for the tribal council representing eight North Slope villages.
I will say the majority of the voices that we heard against Willow were from the Lower 48,” she said of the contiguous U.S. states
, excluding Alaska and Hawaii
ConocoPhillips Alaska said the $8-billion project would create up to 2,500 jobs during construction and 300 long-term jobs, and generate billions of dollars in royalties and other revenues to be split between the federal and state governments.
The project has had widespread support among lawmakers in the state. Alaskas bipartisan congressional delegation met with Biden and his advisors in early March to plead their case for the project, and Alaska Native lawmakers also met with Haaland to urge support.
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Haaland visited the North Slope last spring just hours after state Rep. Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, a whaling co-captain along with his brother on their father’s whaling crew, harvested a roughly 40-ton bowhead whale and spent hours pulling it onto the ice from the Arctic Ocean at Utqiavik. He left the ice around 7 a.m. to be ready to meet with Haaland just two hours later.
For him, the juxtaposition of those activities on the same day underscored the dual life led by Alaska Natives on the North Slope and highlighted the choices that communities make every day for their survival.
That’s the walk our leaders have to walk, said Patkotak, an independent who supported Willow. We maintain our culture and our lifestyle and our subsistence aspect where were one with the land and animals, and the very next hour you may be having to conduct yourself, you know, in a manner that youre playing the Western worlds game.
He invited Haaland to view the bowhead whale
harvested, but when Patkotak couldn’t provide a street name of where she would go, her security
didnt allow it. Well, it’s on the ice, there are no street names, he said.
Patkotak met again with Haaland this month in Washington
, where he extended an invitation to
administration officialsleaders in the White House
to visit Utqiagvik, “because it’s our duty to tell our story so that we’re able to strike that balance of both worlds.
That’s a reality for us, he said.
Thiessen reported from Anchorage and Brown from Billings, Mont.