Alaska’s Willow Project promises huge amounts of oil — and huge environmental impacts

Residents in nearby Nuiqsut worry that oil and gas development is ‘too fast and too much.’

The largest proposed oil and gas project on U.S. federal lands moved one step closer to approval in early July. At 180,000 barrels per day, or 629 million barrels of oil over the course of its 30-year lifetime, the Willow Project would produce more oil than any other public-lands fossil fuel development. The Trump administration’s Interior Department approved the project in October 2020. But in August 2021, a federal judge rejected it following a lawsuit over the project’s impacts on the climate, nearby communities and area wildlife. The Biden administration agreed to conduct another environmental review, which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released on July 8.

The draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) outlines five alternatives, ranging from not building the project at all to creating a large infrastructure footprint that would connect Willow to other fossil fuel operations on Alaska’s North Slope. Any version of the project that gets built will require new infrastructure, including a central processing facility, miles of gravel and ice roads, one or two airstrips, pipelines, a gravel mine site and three to five drill sites. And, according to the SEIS, it could emit as much as 284 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over its 30-year life, and encroach on the habitat of the millions of migratory birds who use the area, as well as more than 80,000 caribou.


Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of Nuiqsut, sits for a portrait in her office in Nuiqsut, Alaska. “We shouldn't be sacrificed for the national energy policy,” she said about the proposed Willow Project.
Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post via Getty Images
“Our way of life is important to us. We want to continue to harvest food on our lands and waters.”

The proposed project’s location is particularly important to the 500 or so residents of Nuiqsut, an Iñupiat village roughly 35 miles away. The SEIS outlines several ways in which the community would be impacted, including noise, light and chemical pollution, and threats to Indigenous food security. “We know how much our culture is at risk with this infrastructure,” said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor. “We shouldn't be sacrificed for the national energy policy. Our way of life is important to us. We want to continue to harvest food on our lands and waters.”

Siqiñiq Maupin, director of the advocacy group Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, has family in Nuiqsut who say that the proposed oil and gas development is “too fast and too much.” During the first round of environmental reviews, in 2019, more than 100 residents showed up to a local meeting to voice their concerns. In 2020, draft environmental impact statement hearings began and residents, along with some tribal leaders, asked the BLM to pause the process until the pandemic was under control. “There were residents and tribal leaders in tears, asking BLM to stop,” Maupin said. They remain concerned about the new review. “The SEIS still has the same major concerns from our end: climate change, subsistence adversely affected, mental health adversely affected and little benefit for the most impacted community.”

FEW PLACES OUTSIDE the proposed project’s area match the importance of the Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Habitat Area, which provides both food for the animals and escape from summer mosquito swarms. If oil and gas development occurs in core calving areas, or if development makes it harder for caribou to find relief from insects, the herd could swiftly decline, affecting subsistence hunting by at least five villages that depend on it: Nuiqsut, Utqiaġvik, Anaktuvuk Pass, Atqasuk, Point Lay and Wainwright.

An aerial view of molting Brant in Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, an important goose molting site. The Willow Project would encroach on the area.
Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the last few decades, Ahtuangaruak said, the increased oil and gas development near Nuiqsut has already disrupted the caribou. When the animals hear the sound of plane engines from the Alpine oil field, about seven miles from the village, they turn and flee. “We are very concerned because it's not just one site,” she said. “There's a whole span of developments that will follow behind it. I’m very concerned about what’s being left behind for future generations.”

When the Willow Project was initially approved in 2020, documents detailing the decision acknowledged that it would increase noise and harmful emissions along with other activity in Nuiqsut’s subsistence use area. That, in turn, would increase stress on Nuiqsut residents and exacerbate mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. “Rapid modernization and development, as well as other multiple stressful conditions, including significant changes in diet, housing, and traditional culture, has led to negative health outcomes, including suicide,” the decision said.

Ahtuangaruak said that locals are already experiencing increased respiratory and thyroid disorders. In a 2019 report on industrialization and air pollution in Alaska’s Arctic, the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), a statewide environmental health organization, concluded that air pollution caused by continued oil and gas industrial expansion is of increasing concern to the residents of Nuiqsut. Pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, PM10 and PM2.5 and formaldehyde can cause serious ailments, ranging from severe allergies, asthma, increased risk of stroke and reduced lung and cardiovascular function, to a rise in preterm births as well as in lung and nasopharyngeal cancer. The report noted that in 2012, Nuiqsut leaders reported a cluster of childhood leukemia and persistent asthma in children.

ConocoPhillips, the Texas-based oil and gas giant, which already operates multiple developments in the region, is leasing the land the Willow Project would be built on. The SEIS acknowledges that air emissions from Willow would occur, but insists that they would meet all air quality standards. A 2012 state analysis on air quality in Nuiqsut blamed the increase in respiratory health issues on late winter and early spring viruses.

Pipelines extend across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska in 2019, near the proposed Willow Project. The village is also about 35 miles from where development for the project would be built.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

WHEN ASKED FOR COMMENT on the project’s potential negative impacts, BLM representatives referred High Country News to a July 8 press release, which said that the agency would hold public meetings to discuss the issue. In its 2020 decision, the BLM laid out potential infrastructure design that could help mitigate some impacts, such as using a nonreflective finish on all pipelines, establishing speed limits, pullouts and caravanning requirements on project roads, and minimizing helicopter flights during peak caribou-harvesting seasons. But even if the agency implements these suggestions, the community still has concerns, Ahtuangaruak said. 

“Rapid moderniz-ation and development, as well as other multiple stressful conditions, including significant changes in diet, housing, and traditional culture, has led to negative health outcomes, including suicide.”

There is a longstanding mistrust of the government and oil companies in the region, especially after the nearby Alpine oil field’s gas leak in March 2022. “ConocoPhillips can continue to make promises to protect the Arctic as many times as they'd like, but their track record says otherwise,” said Sonia Ahkivgak, the communications coordinator and social media organizer for Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic.

Still, many Iñupiat support oil development, Ahkivgak said, because it can bring money into the community. A handful of Alaska Native tribal governments, organizations and corporations have voiced their support, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, Voice of the Arctic, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and the cities of Wainwright, Atqasuk and Utqiaġvik. The region’s oil operations already employ thousands of people, and the Willow Project is expected to generate billions more dollars in state revenue and create thousands of additional construction and oilfield service jobs. However, most of the project’s construction jobs would be filled by non-locals, according to the BLM’s 2020 decision.

The SEIS notes that its analysis was completed in cooperation with the city of Nuiqsut, but Ahtuangaruak felt that project coordinators pay more attention to industry representatives than they do to village residents. ConocoPhillips spokesperson Dennis Nuss said the company and project stakeholders have hosted 25 public meetings since 2018 and are working with local communities to assess their concerns. “The Willow Project has been designed to ensure responsible resource development, while providing maximum economic benefit to local residents,” said Nuss. “We will continue to work closely with our neighbors on the North Slope to see this project through.”

The BLM will accept public comment on the five options for the project until Aug. 29. Maupin and Ahkivgak encouraged residents to support the SEIS’s option to simply forgo the project.

“We understand the needs of oil and gas development, but we are also important as a community that is fighting to keep our way of life,” said Nuiqsut Mayor Ahtuangaruak.

Victoria Petersen is a freelance journalist living in Anchorage, Alaska. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at The New York Times and a High Country News intern.

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