Anchorage, Alaska: The Biden administration’s approval this week of the biggest oil drilling project in Alaska in decades promises to widen a rift among Alaska Natives, with some saying that oil money can’t counter the damages 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 ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow project.
Many communities on Alaska’s 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 continue to be a problem, with multiple generations often living together, she said.
“We still have a long way 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.
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 dated earlier this month written 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.