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On Willow, Democrats should listen more  

FILE – This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The Biden administration is weighing approval of a major oil project on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope that supporters say represents an economic lifeline for Indigenous communities in the region but environmentalists say is counter to Biden’s climate goals. A decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, could come by early March 2023. (ConocoPhillips via AP, File)

As a freshman representative, I’m used to people not knowing my name, even in my own party. Some just know me as the “pro-fish” candidate who replaced Don Young. I am definitely made of salmon, but I am focused on delivering for Alaskans on every issue they care about.  

Alaska is the largest state in the union (2.5 times the size of Texas), and I am its sole Representative.  

There is a lot on my plate, and right now, my biggest priority is an energy project on Alaska’s North Slope. It’s called the Willow Project, and it could be the lifeline that keeps the Alaska I love alive.  

I know that as a country, and especially in the Democratic Party, we are increasingly looking away from fossil fuels—as we should. I am a leading Alaskan voice in support of renewable energy and my state’s incredible potential for wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal generation. 

And I’m proud of the progress Alaska has made in green development

Alaskans share the desire to phase out fossil fuels. But we are hurt by the disregard that we hear from many people who talk about mitigating the energy transition’s impacts on marginalized communities while dismissing the voice of the first Alaska Native representative in Congress. 

Alaskans — and certainly Alaska Natives — aren’t blind to the impacts of climate change. We are on the front lines. We see our sea ice shrinking. We breathe in smoke from the summer wildfires. 

We’ve called this land home for thousands of years. Now, our homes are sinking into permafrost. We understand climate change more than most. If Democrats want to help us, they should listen to us. 

We can’t shoulder the burden of fixing global climate change alone. And in their own words, Democrats say we shouldn’t have to

The same experts advocating for the transition to renewable energy acknowledge that it’s just that — a transition. We can’t flip a switch and power our ATVs, boats, and planes with electric batteries overnight.   

Pretending that we can transition instantly is just as irresponsible as claiming that we can continue burning fossil fuels forever.  

We need a grid that can actually harness renewable energy in every rural and urban area around the country. We need buy-in from local communities. We need a plan for a real transition that does not leave our most vulnerable people freezing in the winter in places like Noatak, Alaska, where stove oil costs $15.31 a gallon and can cause heating bills in the thousands per month. We need a plan that doesn’t leave them hungry when they cannot drive out on ATVs or snowmachines to hunt because unleaded fuel is $14.49 a gallon. We need a middle ground.  

We need a bridge to fill the gap. 

The Willow Project can be part of that bridge. With Willow, we can produce some of the most well-regulated, environmentally responsible energy in the world — meeting our current demand and providing Alaska with the resources to seriously invest in alternative energy. At the same time, we can reduce America’s dependence on foreign sources of oil — which makes us all safer in a world that has grown more unpredictable after Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Alaskans know what is at stake with Willow, which is why so many of us, including the largest statewide Alaska Native association and all our labor unions, support Willow. It’s why Alaskan Democrats and Republicans alike support Willow.  

It’s why our bipartisan Congressional delegation and our tripartisan state legislature support the Willow Project. 

And it’s why I’m asking my fellow Democrats to join us. We need your help. Visit Alaska. Hear us and see our needs firsthand. Just last week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough visited my hometown. Many homes in Bethel have two things in common: a smokehouse for salmon and a heating oil tank attached to the side of the house. Bethel is the hub for 48 Alaska Native villages, none of which are accessible by road. Together, the area is the size of Oregon. 

The secretary intended to visit a nearby village called Kwethluk that’s just 11 air miles away. You can travel from Bethel to Kwethluk in the winter via plane (at ~$75 one way if weather permits) or snow machine or vehicle on an ice road (costing $17/gallon). Upon arrival in Bethel, the secretary was informed that “the river was closed” and it would be impossible to visit veterans in Kwethluk that day. If those veterans had needed to travel to Bethel for services as well, they wouldn’t have been able to. 

I told him, “This is just another day in rural Alaska.”  

Alaska is just one example of the diversity of American experiences. For us, a just transition must make sense for people who travel by snow machine, small plane, ferry and boat. A just transition must make sense for the workers who earn their living extracting resources that fuel our cars, package our food, and make up the core components of our telecommunications and medical technology. And I promise you, we are ready to embrace that plan — especially if it reduces energy costs and makes our communities more accessible to all Alaskans.  

But we do not yet have a plan that makes sense for rural Alaska. 

People in rural Alaska, like many rural Americans, feel left behind when Democrats talk about their future while ignoring their present realities. I think they chose me to represent their interests because they know I understand the unique challenges and needs of people living in rural communities. Alaska Natives know development on the North Slope provided good-paying jobs for thousands of people. They know that development led to incredible improvements in living standards and lifespans.  

What they don’t know is what comes next. 

As the first and only Alaska Native in Congress, I’m asking my Democratic colleagues to hear their concerns and the concerns of all Alaskans—and respond in earnest. 

Can we tell them with a straight face that we can meet their current energy, economic, and transportation needs with renewables tomorrow, or even five years from now?  

If the answer is no, we have a problem.  

Whatever our energy transition ends up looking like, empathy is the real bridge to the future for both our country and party. If we do not hear the pleas for help coming from rural and small-town America, we can’t represent voters who call those places home. People who are left behind are the fiercest resistors of change.  

That’s why I’ll keep asking my fellow Democrats to help me call on the president and the Department of the Interior to issue a positive Record of Decision for at least three drilling pads for the Willow Project. 

Together, we can show all our constituents that we can realize a green future and that we will not leave anyone behind along the way.  

To my Democratic colleagues: if we do this, I promise, Alaskans will not forget it. When we are building the renewable economy of the future, your names will be remembered as the people who helped make it happen. And when you visit from the Lower 48, and see our beautiful state and our thriving traditions, you’ll receive a warm welcome from Alaskans and know that you have friends who will support you in the generational task ahead of us. Together, we can create a plan that makes sense for rural Alaska and rural America alike. 

Mary Peltola represents Alaska at large in Congress and is a member of the Committee on Natural Resources. 

Tags Climate change Energy willow poject

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