Could Alaska help lessen international dependence on Russian oil?

A proposed LNG project spanning the state would export natural gas, but could harm land, wildlife & subsistence harvests.

In late October, Japanese, U.S. and Alaska energy and government officials convened in Tokyo to discuss the Alaska LNG project, which would transport natural gas from Alaska’s far north oil and gas reserves to an export facility in the south-central part of the state.

For decades, Alaska was Japan’s sole source of imported natural gas. Today, Russia supplies many European and Asian countries with liquid natural gas, but many are eager to lessen their dependence on Russian fossil fuels in light of the country’s invasion of Ukraine. This, combined with a high global demand for natural gas and the fact that the Alaska LNG project has secured the necessary permits, has intensified interest in the project among U.S. and Alaska officials. However, it comes with considerable environmental impacts and a steep price tag.


The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation, a state-run entity, is developing the $38.7 billion project, which would include an 807-mile-long pipeline, a gas treatment facility on Alaska’s North Slope on the coast of the Beaufort Sea and a liquefaction facility and export terminal in Nikiski, along Cook Inlet near Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. The project would deliver an average of about 3.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day — enough to power thousands of homes, at an average of about 200 cubic feet of gas per day. It would take about eight years to construct and have an estimated 30-year lifespan.

The Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska Native Village Corporation Association Inc. and many communities in the Kenai Peninsula Borough — where the liquefaction facility would be built and where 20 million tons of natural gas would be processed, stored and transported annually — have all signaled support for the project, citing its economic benefits.

But climate groups are critical of the project. They note the impact it would have on the environment, both through its direct effects on the landscape and the greenhouse gas emissions it would produce.

In 2021, the Biden administration ordered a draft supplemental environmental impact statement specifically to analyze the project’s greenhouse gas emissions. The report, released in June, concluded that the project would have little net effect on global emissions, because other natural gas suppliers would step in if it isn’t built.

Still, the supplemental statement acknowledges that the project “would result in a number of significant environmental impacts,” including damage to permafrost and wetlands, and harm to several species. Project construction would require 35,474 acres of land, 45% of which would be permanently affected, according to a 2020 environmental impact statement.

Eunice Brower cleans waterfowl in the company of her daughter Charity in Nuiqsut, Alaska. Residents of the remote village rely on hunting and fishing for subsistence.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

 “We want to be able to feed our families from our lands and waters as our families have done for generations before us.”

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut, a small Inupiat village in Alaska’s North Slope Borough and the closest community to the project’s northern base, said that her biggest concerns are her community’s proximity to gas emissions as well as the project’s effects on land, wildlife and subsistence harvests. “We're very concerned about what's going to happen with the process and having to deal with the changes to our lands and waters and the risks to our animals that we depend on for food,” she said. “All the current activities as well as proposed are really in the heart of our livelihoods, where we feed our families, where we harvest as our elders did. Now we have infrastructure going up in so much of these areas, it's changing our stories of how we use our lands and waters.”

According to the 2020 environmental impact statement, Alaska LNG’s construction and operation are “likely to adversely affect” six endangered and threatened wildlife species: spectacled eiders, polar bears, bearded seals, Cook Inlet beluga whales, humpback whales and ringed seals. The proposed project area coincides with critical habitat in Point Thompson and Kaktovik, where polar bears den in the springtime. The project would also impact migrating Arctic caribou, potentially causing changes to migration patterns. It could also create noise and light pollution and introduce or spread invasive species.

A polar bear and her cubs near Kaktovik, Alaska. The proposed project area coincides with critical habitat in Point Thompson and Kaktovik, where polar bears den in the springtime.
Sylvain Cordier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“Our life, health, safety and the importance of our traditional cultural activities are important to us and to our future generations,” Ahtuangaruak said. “We want to be able to feed our families from our lands and waters as our families have done for generations before us.”

The project’s environmental impacts and permanence on the landscape are being downplayed, said Alyssa Sappenfield, an energy analyst with Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition. “There is a permanent effect here that isn't really being talked about in a way that really matches the moment of crisis that we are living with today — that in the Arctic, we are warming four times faster than the rest of the world,” she said. “This project doesn't seem on par with that reality.”

Now that it has secured the necessary federal permits, the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) is moving closer to making Alaska LNG a reality; all it needs is the money to move the project forward. The organization has been looking for buyers and investors for years, especially in Asia. Even though the AGDC has lowered the estimated cost from $44.2 billion to $38.7 billion, Alaska LNG faces competition from a number of other natural gas projects globally because of the high costs of construction in rural Alaska and inflation.

Prudhoe Bay oil field along the coast of Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The Alaska LNG project would include a gas treatment facility on the Beaufort Sea coast.
Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2020/Gallo Images via Getty Images


“Accessing North Slope natural gas for the first time solves both these problems at once.” 

But Tim Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for the development corporation, said Alaska LNG has several of competitive advantages over other proposed projects, including its close proximity to buyers in Asia and its successful federal permitting. The project, he said, also has the potential to expand into hydrogen production and carbon sequestration. Fitzpatrick added that if Alaska LNG is successful, it could lead to another project that would expand natural gas delivery to communities around Alaska through spur lines from the main Alaska LNG pipeline. “Rural Alaskans face some of the highest energy costs in the country and suffer from some of the worst air quality in the nation because they are forced to rely on diesel, wood, or worse for energy,” Fitzpatrick said. “Accessing North Slope natural gas for the first time solves both these problems at once.” However, the current project and cost does not include the infrastructure that is necessary to expand into hydrogen production and carbon sequestration or extend gas lines to communities.

The state has spent more than $250 million to advance the project. Arleigh Hitchcock, an organizer with Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, said money would be better invested in cleaner energy. “There is an appetite to make things like this happen, and that is the death rattle of the fossil fuel industry,” they said. “Trying to make more infrastructure, to make this lock in, to make us dependent on something that is hurting us, instead of putting money toward transitioning our economy and transitioning labor force and (enacting) more renewable energy that our state desperately needs.”

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. Follow @vgpetersen

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