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Alaska’s ‘Willow Project’ is essential to our Iñupiat sustainability


As the first snows coat Alaska, families are bracing for a long and difficult winter in the midst of historically high energy prices. Across the Lower 48, many will face similar hardships as heating bills arrive in mailboxes. 

The fact is, six months after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil markets into shock, there remains an urgent need to bring more U.S. production online. Fortunately, the Biden administration is in the final steps of reviewing a major project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) that will make a big difference. After extensive review, all the Willow project needs is the White House’s green light.

If President Biden has any doubt that approval of Willow is critical to America’s interests, I hope he’ll look to those who stand to be impacted most. And no, I’m not talking about the outside groups that purport to speak for Alaska while fighting all forms of development. I’m talking about Alaska native communities.

I’m an Iñupiat whaling captain who has subsisted in Arctic Alaska for my entire life. I’m also an elected assembly member for the North Slope Borough — the largest municipal government, in area, in the United States. My ancestors have been caring for our land, water and wildlife for thousands of years, and we continue to do so for future generations. Given our rich history and the rightful ownership of our homelands, it seems intuitive that our voices would be prioritized in debates regarding resource development there. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case.

The North Slope of Alaska is a challenging but beautiful place to live. It provides the Iñupiat with sustenance, enhances our culture and defines who we are — indigenous people who thrive in one of the harshest climates on the planet. 

Our communities have faced hardships that outsiders can’t imagine. I’m just 46 years old, and I have experienced tremendous improvements to our quality of life because of the oil and gas industry that allows us to stay true to our traditional ways of life. The borough celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and my great-uncle, Eben Hopson, Sr., was one of its founders and the very first mayor. It was through the foresight of past leaders like him that we have been able to improve our villages’ third-world living conditions to first-world communities. One of my great-uncle’s goals was to ‘have a flush toilet in every house’ in each of our region’s villages. We’ve mostly succeeded in doing that through building clean sanitation and water infrastructure. We have also built public health clinics and schools; created public safety, search and rescue; as well as provide other services that have been directly responsible for the Iñupiat attaining an additional 13-years to our lifespan.

These improvements have been made possible by working with industry to ensure cultural values are maintained and protected while also providing the opportunity for future generations to remain home. It’s through our municipal property taxes on energy infrastructure that allows us to be self-sustainable. Within our region, more than 50 percent of residents are indigenous, and in some of our communities it’s more than 90 percent. Based on my grandfather’s dream, we have been successful in creating our own destiny. Because of the strength of our borough, through its taxing authority, we are not dependent on federal or state funding.

The Willow Project continues to face opposition — primarily from Lower 48 environmental groups complaining about a “rushed” or “incomplete” review. But these objections can’t be sincere. Willow is a project that has gone through an extraordinary amount of review and public input, starting with the 1998 NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan Environmental Impact Statement. A 22-year public input process led to changes in the project’s design and footprint. Our borough reviewed, engaged, and had local permitting oversight to rezone the Willow Project area. Our elected officials, through a majority vote, passed the rezone allowing the project to move forward. Throughout the borough’s history, it has worked to maintain a record of safe, responsible development that mitigates impacts to our land and our animals through its expertise in the Arctic.

Is everything perfect? Of course not. Here in the Arctic, we know our climate is changing, and we see its affects every single day, but we will not become its victims. We’re at the forefront of environmental challenges, and our world hasn’t yet weaned itself from fossil fuels. Willow is crucial for our future, but it’s also crucial for yours. It will provide essential revenue to allow us time to focus on diversifying our local economy while maintaining our current infrastructure, and it will allow our country time to diversify our energy-blend. This is about indigenous self-determination and Iñupiat sustainability on our terms.

In our culture, as children, our elders gather us and teach us through story telling. This is the way I learned about many things, including the responsibility and need to participate in decision-making processes while staying true to our Iñupiat values. I honor my past for our future.

John Hopson, Jr., is a resident and council member for the City of Wainwright, Alaska, a village within the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska (NPRA). He also serves on the Assembly of the North Slope Borough, which is the farthest north municipal government in the United States in an area that encompasses 94,000 square miles and is home to nearly 10,000 permanent residents. He is also a whaling captain and avid subsistence hunter and serves as chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

Tags Alaska Arctic Arctic drilling Biden National Petroleum Reserve Alaska National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska North Slope Borough, Alaska Oil prices oil production Willow Project
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