Biden’s approval of Willow oil project intensifies rift among Indigenous Alaskans

A derrick stands above flat, frozen ground as seen from a distance
An exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope.
(ConocoPhillips via Associated Press)
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The Biden administration’s approval this week of Alaska’s biggest oil drilling project in decades promises to widen a rift among Indigenous people in the state — with some saying 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 Alaska Native group are likely to exacerbate tensions that have built up over years of debate about the Willow project from ConocoPhillips Alaska.

Many communities on Alaska’s North Slope celebrated the project’s approval, citing new jobs and an influx of money for schools, other public services and infrastructure investment in 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 continue to be a problem, with generations often living together in one home, she said.


“We still have a long ways to go. We don’t want to go backward,” Leavitt said.

She said 50 years of oil production on the petroleum-rich North Slope have shown that development can coexist with wildlife and the traditional, subsistence way of life.

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But some Alaska Natives decried the decision to greenlight the project, and they are supported by environmental groups challenging the approval in federal court.

The acrimony was underscored in a letter written 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 Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to lead a Cabinet department.

The letter cited the threat that climate change poses to caribou migrations and 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 Utqiagvik, the nation’s northernmost community on the Arctic Ocean, said she jumped for joy when she heard that the Biden administration had approved the Willow project. “The majority of our community and the majority of the people were excited,” she said.


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Willow is in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a vast region on the North Slope that is roughly the size of Maine. It would produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, which when used would result in at least 263 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, according to a federal environmental review.

Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the 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, endangering polar bears and villages. A second lawsuit seeking to block the project was filed Wednesday by Greenpeace and other environmental groups.

It will take discussions among Alaska Natives to reconcile on the issue.

“We just continue to try to sit at the table together, break bread and meet as a region,” said Leavitt, who acts as 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.”

ConocoPhillips Alaska said the $8-billion project would create up to 2,500 jobs during construction and 300 in the long term, and would generate billions of dollars in royalties and other revenue to be split between the federal and state governments.

Willow has had widespread support among Alaskan lawmakers. The state’s bipartisan congressional delegation met this month with Biden and his advisors to plead their case for the project, and Native lawmakers also met with Haaland to urge support.

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Haaland visited the North Slope last spring hours after state Rep. Josiah Patkotak, a co-captain with his brother on their father’s whaling crew, harvested a 40-ton bowhead whale and spent hours pulling it onto the ice at Utqiagvik. He left the ice around 7 a.m. to meet Haaland two hours later.


For him, the juxtaposition of the activities underscored the dual life led by Native people on the North Slope and highlighted the choices communities make every day for their survival.

“That’s the walk our leaders have to walk,” said Patkotak, a political independent who supported Willow. “We maintain our culture and our lifestyle and our subsistence aspect, where we’re one with the land and animals, and the very next hour you may be having to conduct yourself, you know, in a manner that you’re playing the Western world’s game.”

Patkotak invited Haaland to view the whale they had harvested, but when he couldn’t provide a street name, her security detail wouldn’t 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 invited administration officials 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.