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Don’t make Indigenous people pay Willow’s price

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For Indigenous people, defending our rights to clean air and water, continuing to live off the land, and protecting the sacredness of Mother Earth is the fight of our lives. Unfortunately, communities like mine continue to be ignored at every turn and are left to fend for ourselves as the devastating effects of our current energy policies destroy our way of life. 

That’s exactly what’s happening now as President Biden barrels towards approving ConocoPhillips’ Willow project in Alaska, just a stone’s throw away from home. The Biden administration is moving forward with a massive oil and gas project that is a climate disaster waiting to happen while refusing to listen to the voices of my constituents and community, who will bear the burden of this project with our health and our livelihoods. 

Make no mistake, Willow will be the largest new oil extraction project on federal lands and will do irreversible damage to the sensitive Arctic landscape. The proposed development will include the construction of up to 250 oil wells, 37 miles of gravel roads, 386 miles of pipelines, airstrips, and processing facilities.

My hometown, Nuiqsut, is the closest town to the proposed Willow Project, and we have the most to lose. Our people feed their families with traditional subsistence activities like fishing and hunting caribou, moose, birds, and more. The Willow project’s massive infrastructure would bulldoze straight through these crucial habitats, redirecting the animal’s migratory paths, moving them away from nearby villages, and endangering the food security of local people. That’s not to mention the damage from exposure to air and water pollution that we face. 

Recent studies have shown that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world. As oil is exported and sent around the globe, our communities in the Arctic are left to contend with the health impacts of pollution as well as the devastation that comes from dramatic changes to the land we live on like sea ice melt, permafrost thaw, and coastal erosion. Approval of additional oil and gas projects in the Arctic will only add more threats to our way of life. 

Our communities deserved a say. In Nuiqsut, we urged the Department of the Interior (DOI) to schedule the public input portion of the supplemental environmental review process for the project around our hunting season and subsistence activities, knowing many of those opposed to or concerned about the project would be away at hunting camp. 

There’s no time to read documents, submit comments, or organize in opposition when our people are at hunting camp. Not hunting for our subsistence is not an option – the food our communities are harvesting now will help get us through the winter. 

The Secretary of the Interior – who is an Indigenous person herself – knows these things. And for a moment, it seemed like her department did too. Unfortunately, after feigning concern and promising to extend the comment period through September, the department went back on its word and squeezed in the shortest comment period allowed by law during the worst time possible for the region. All of this happened after the draft supplemental environmental impact statement was released on a summer Friday night, which is what the government does when they want to hide bad news. 

It’s time for the Biden administration to wake up and see the Willow Project for what it is: a choice between a transition to a greener future while protecting all communities or extending our unsurvivable addiction to fossil fuels while perpetrating yet another grave injustice to Indigenous communities. If the administration chooses the wrong fork of the road, our families will struggle to put food on the table. We will have to leave our history and culture behind. And Indigenous people will continue to suffer and die from respiratory diseases at a disproportionate rate

From food security and chronic illness to physical and mental health to culture and traditions, there’s a lot on the line for Nuiqsut and our neighbors. It’s past time that we – and Indigenous people everywhere – have a say in our energy policy.  

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak is the mayor of Nuiqsut, Alaska.

Tags Alaska Arctic Arctic drilling Arctic sea ice decline Biden Climate change coastal erosion ConocoPhillips Critical habitat Energy policy federal lands habitat loss Indigenous people oil and gas drilling Oil and gas industry oil and gas leasing oil and gas leasing on public land Permafrost sea ice loss subsistence wildlife habitat Willow Project

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