The Biden administration just approved a huge oil project in Alaska

The Willow project threatens local lifeways and wildlife in Nuiqsut, Alaska.

ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow project was approved by the Biden administration Monday, despite “substantial concerns” about the oil project’s climate and environmental impacts, and despite President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to ban “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.”

The Willow project is expected to extract more than 600 million barrels of oil over the course of its 30-year lifetime — more than any other public-lands fossil fuel development in the United States.


The leaders of the community closest to the project, the city and Native Village of Nuiqsut, say the consultation process and mitigation measures are both inadequate. The project, which is located about 30 miles away from Nuiqsut, home to more than 500 people, could cause chemical pollution from spills and leaks, and noise and light pollution from construction, scheduled blasts and air traffic. It would also expand roads and infrastructure, which could infringe on crucial habitat for species that are essential to Indigenous food security.

Nuiqsut officials had asked that the decision be delayed until the Bureau of Land Management first engaged with them in a meaningful way to protect residents’ health and subsistence way of life.

“It seems that despite its nod to traditional ecological knowledge, BLM does not consider relevant the extensive knowledge and expertise we have gained over millennia, living in a way that is so deeply connected to our environment,”  Nuiqsut’s city mayor and vice mayor, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and Carl Brower, and the president of the Native Village of Nuiqsut, Eunice Brower, wrote in a joint March 3 letter to U.S Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The long list of mitigation might look impressive to politicians and government decision makers. To us, it is an attempt to break the importance of our life and culture into fragments that are each a mere technical problem to be solved so the project can go forward. BLM does not look at the harm this project would cause from the perspective of how to let us be us — how to ensure that we can maintain our culture, traditions, and our ability to keep going out on the land and the waters.”

Caribou and geese at Teshekpuk Lake, Alaska. The region is critical for migratory birds and other creatures, including the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd, which calves there.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“It seems that despite its nod to traditional ecological knowledge, BLM does not consider relevant the extensive knowledge and expertise we have gained over millennia.” 

The project is located on federal land in a remote part of the Arctic that is home to caribou, polar bears, migratory birds and other wildlife. About 23 million acres of it were set aside in 1923 as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an emergency military oil supply. In 1976, this land was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. ConocoPhillips, the Texas-based oil and gas giant, is leasing the area the Willow project would be built on.

In 2020, President Donald Trump’s administration approved the Willow project’s original environmental impact statement, which a federal judge later found to be inadequate because it failed to protect wildlife, such as the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd and several species of migratory birds. The approved plan reduces some of the potential wildlife impacts by shrinking the project’s footprint within the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a region critical for migratory birds and other creatures, including the Teshekpuk herd, which calves there.

The final record of decision allows ConocoPhillips to develop three of the five drill sites it proposed. In addition, the company must relinquish 68,000 acres of existing oil and gas leases in the petroleum reserve, mostly in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.

The development will include a processing facility, an operations center, an airstrip, about 30 miles of gravel roads, about 431 miles of ice roads, 267 miles of pipelines and up to 199 wells. Up to three subsistence-use boat ramps will also be constructed “to help offset project effects on the community of Nuiqsut,” according to the record of decision. Construction is expected to take eight years, during which ice roads will be made each winter and thousands of flights will deliver supplies to and from the camp.

On Sunday, a day before announcing its approval of the project, the White House also said that it plans to limit future oil and gas development in the Arctic. The Biden administration tasked the Interior Department with designating 13 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic as “special areas” crucial to wildlife and subsistence living, and announced that it plans to ban future oil and gas leasing in 2.8 million acres of the Arctic Ocean.


Nuiqsut, Alaska, in 2019. Nuiqsut officials had asked that the decision be delayed until the Bureau of Land Management first engaged with them in a meaningful way to protect residents’ health and subsistence way of life.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images


OIL OPERATIONS ON THE NORTH SLOPE employ thousands of people, and the Willow project is expected to create hundreds of new construction and oilfield service jobs — most of which will be filled by non-locals, according to a 2020 BLM decision. The agency expects the project to result in up to $10 billion in federal royalties and tax revenue for the state of Alaska and the North Slope Borough, and up to $7 billion in federal revenue.

The project has received strong support from the North Slope Borough and several Alaska Native organizations and corporations, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, the cities of Wainwright, Atqasuk and Utqiaġvik, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, a nonprofit formed in 2015 that is largely funded by the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the North Slope Borough.

“The Willow Project is a new opportunity to ensure a viable future for our communities, creating generational economic stability for our people and advancing our self-determination,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, said in a statement Monday. “For North Slope communities, more than $1 billion in property taxes paid to the North Slope Borough would help provide basic services like education, police, fire protection and more.”

“The Willow Project is a new opportunity to ensure a viable future for our communities.”

Last month, the Alaska State House voted unanimously in support of the Willow project. Alaska’s congressional delegation also urged Biden to approve it.

“I am the Representative for all Alaska, and that includes those who oppose Willow,” Rep. Mary Peltola said in a Friday statement to High Country News. “I will never diminish or dismiss their concerns with the project, and I will always welcome their feedback and look for common ground where we can find it. But I am bound by my responsibility to all Alaskans to weigh the costs and benefits as objectively as possible, just as Kuukpik, AFN, VOICE, and others have done. After doing so, I continue to believe that Willow will benefit our entire state, including the people of Nuiqsut.”

An aerial view of tundra polygons and caribou tracks in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The reserve’s almost 23 million acres were set aside in 1923 as an emergency military oil supply.
Gerrit Vyn/NPL/Minden Pictures

But others are against the project. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, a nonprofit Alaska Native advocacy group, opposes it and says that officials need to listen to the people living in the community closest to it.

“What we hear time and time again is that Iñupiat want this project,” Siqiñiq Maupin, director of SILA, said. “I’d say the majority do, but when the most impacted community speaks out so strongly and not even their mitigation efforts are heard, we need to listen.”

Maupin, an urban Alaska Native who visits family back home in Nuiqsut in the summers, said project officials have dismissed Nuiqsut community members’ concerns and suggestions for mitigating the project’s impacts. These could include working seasonally to avoid affecting caribou migrations, as well as driving construction materials to the project area rather than using barges, as increased water traffic could harm whales and other aquatic wildlife.

“It would cost them money and although they have had record-breaking profits, our food security isn’t a priority,” Maupin said. “The process, the decisions and the preferred alternatives have not fixed any of the issues that struck the entire project down in the first place.

“A few years ago, I was on a hunting trip and while boating on the river, I felt so connected to the land. My spirit felt connected with the thousands of ancestors who came before me — even my grandmother, who grew up in a skin tent on that river,” Maupin said. “Then we started to turn the river bend and I saw old metal barrels polluting the space, then a big oil rig and more equipment just ahead. It cut off that connection.”

SILA will continue to oppose the project. “We still have the power to stop this monstrosity,” Maupin said. “Until the construction hits the ground, we are going to fight. We will continue to bring pressure to Biden, to make information accessible about this process and the project and stay true to our values and principles. … What has to happen before the president cares about climate-related forced relocation, displacement, health impacts and deaths?”

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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