Alaska Native supporters of Willow oil project push for approval in D.C.
WASHINGTON — As a decision from the Biden administration on the Willow oil development project nears, a group of North Slope leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., this month to advocate for its approval, emphasizing that their communities stand to gain billions if it is developed.
The Willow project, a $8 billion ConocoPhillips drilling prospect in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, is expected to produce more than 180,000 barrels of oil daily at its peak. As the Biden administration mulls a decision on the project, conservation groups and some Indigenous leaders are calling on the president to halt it, arguing approval would harm the environment and tarnish the president’s record on climate change.
Several North Slope leaders visited D.C. in February to promote Willow alongside Alaska’s congressional delegation, pushing their perspective that the development is crucial to the local economy.
Members from the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. board of directors joined Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the U.S. Capitol building in the hours before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. They flagged down reporters and other senators like Republican Jim Risch of Idaho and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware to talk about the Willow project.
“It’s that important to us,” ASRC board chairman Crawford Patkotak said of Willow in an interview on Capitol Hill. “We’ve worked very hard over the years to sustain our way of life, and we’re not stopping now, so we have to keep that fight up. It’s been a fight for the rights to the resources.”
Murkowski and her fellow Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan convened a press conference Feb. 14, intended to give a platform to North Slope leaders in favor of the project.
“Our economy is based on this development, if that goes away, or it’s not allowed to expand, we then don’t have money to maintain the systems that we have currently in place, nor do we have the money to make investments in future economies,” said Nagruk Harcharek, head of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, in an interview. Harcharek also traveled to D.C. to advocate for the project.
In its final environmental review, the Bureau of Land Management estimated that if the Biden administration approves the preferred three-pad alternative, about $1.2 billion would go to the North Slope Borough via property taxes over Willow’s estimated three-decade lifespan. Property tax payments accounted for 89% of the borough’s general fund revenues over the past four fiscal years, the review said.
“Taxes levied on oil and gas infrastructure have enabled the borough to invest in public infrastructure and utilities, support education, provide police, fire, emergency and other services,” Taqulik Hepa, the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management director, told reporters during a press conference. She added that the approximately $1.2 billion in tax revenue would “provide the much-needed basic services of our residents.”
Another way money will flow to North Slope communities is through a grant program that seeks to offset adverse impacts from development. Per a 1980s federal statute, the federal government must pay 50% of royalty and lease revenues associated with oil and gas activity in NPR-A to the state of Alaska. The state must then provide funding for communities that are most affected by oil and gas development, through an impact mitigation grant program.
The money has primarily gone to support the North Slope Borough and the five communities — Utqiagvik, Atqasuk, Nuiqsut, Anaktuvuk Pass and Wainwright — most directly affected by oil and gas activity in NPR-A, the review says.
Since the program’s start, Alaska has awarded $203 million in NPR-A impact grants, including for projects like natural gas distribution to the village of Nuiqsut, which is located near existing North Slope oil fields and would be the community closest to the Willow project. It has also paid for police officers in villages, search and rescue equipment upgrades, and renovations to community centers.
If the preferred alternative is approved, Willow would generate between $2.3 billion and $3.6 billion for the program over its lifetime, based on projections cited in the environmental review.
NPR-A grant money has recently funded youth programing, a city park and a boat ramp used by subsistence hunters in the North Slope village of Wainwright. Mayor Chester Ekak said said future NPR-A grant funding from Willow could help replace Wainwright’s aging community center, among other initiatives.
“The impact to the community is largely positive because, in our small tight-knit communities, some of these resources aren’t available as much larger communities or vastly populated cities,” Ekak said in an interview. “So having these programs gives our youth and residents programs to actively participate in.”
Between $1.3 billion and $5.2 billion would go to the state of Alaska through production, property and corporate income taxes, the environmental review outlined, using the same projections.
Proponents also emphasize that the project will provide jobs. Willow is expected to produce up to 2,500 construction jobs and about 300 permanent jobs, though the environmental review notes that most of those roles would not go to full-time North Slope Borough residents. The project could, however, spur jobs for locals in “industry support companies” that provide services like catering, security, construction and maintenance, according to the review.
The review also indicated that Alaska Native corporations like ASRC and Kuukpik Corp., Nuiqsut’s village corporation, have subsidiaries that could work on Willow, and would likely earn revenues from the project, leading to higher shareholder dividends.
“The benefits of a project like this, to contracting directly with our Native corporations to provide jobs and making sure the dollar circulates within our local economy as many times as possible, cannot go unnoticed,” independent state Rep. Josiah Patkotak from Utqiagvik said during a press conference.
Nuiqsut has received about $22 million in NPR-A grant funds to date. The environmental review states, “Nuiqsut residents are also most likely to receive income from development, through employment wages or Kuukpik dividends.”
Yet Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak fervently opposes the project and said her fears that the project will threaten subsistence hunting and her community’s health are paramount. She also raised concerns about a natural gas leak last year at a ConocoPhillips’ drilling pad at its Alpine field.
“Our concerns around these issues are about protecting our future generations and making sure that we’re able to continue to harvest in our lands and waters as our elders have done before us,” Ahtuangaruak said in an interview. “These projects that are being proposed are in an area that put our way of life at risk and that’s not an acceptable cost to the national energy policy.”
The Native Village of Nuiqsut is also opposed to Willow.
Kuukpik Corp., on the other hand, in comments to the federal government, endorsed the preferred three-pad alternative.
Ahtuangaruak brought her opposition to Washington, D.C. in January where she participated in a protest against Willow, citing health and subsistence concerns. Environmental groups like the Alaska Wilderness League, Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, and Environment America joined Ahtuangaruak outside the White House to rally against the project that they call a “climate bomb.”
At the time, a ConocoPhillips spokesperson said that Willow would “produce some of the most environmentally and socially responsible barrels of oil in the world, while providing extensive economic and employment opportunities.”
While in D.C., Ahtuangaruak said she met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Sen. Sullivan said at a press conference that Willow advocates from the North Slope have struggled to get such a meeting with Haaland.
Asked about Sullivan’s claim, an Interior Department spokesperson said, “We have no response to the Alaska senator’s press conference.”
Ahtuangaruak said that the Interior Department’s final environmental review indicates that the approval process is “not going in our direction,” but she will keep up the fight against Willow through continued engagement and public comments.
“Everyone can put all the blame for Nuiqsut trying to stand up for our community and the importance of us,” Ahtuangaruak said. “Well, it’s what every community should be doing, trying to protect their way of life and the importance of their life, health and safety, and the importance of the future before us now.”
The final stretch
At the conference, Sullivan raised concerns about what he called the “strange” Interior Department statement released alongside the environmental review. He said it signals that the Biden administration may try to constrict Willow from the three-pad preferred alternative to a smaller footprint.
The statement said the Interior Department has “substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final SEIS, including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”
According to a Bloomberg report, a ConocoPhillips executive said a version of Willow with less than three pads would not be an economically “viable project.” The Alaska delegation put out a joint statement in December stating that they would view the Biden administration approving a nonviable project as a “denial.”
“We think it’s being teed up to possibly be a ruse to go to two pads and again, it would just be an exercise of pure raw power, not science and importantly, not listening to the people who live there,” Sullivan told reporters.
Some North Slope Willow advocates are worried about that outcome too.
“My hope is that it moves forward, where it is economically viable,” Harcharek said. “There is obviously a concern, considering a little bit of language that they added into the final there.”
“But that’s why we’re here, right? We’re here to promote it. We’re here to push it,” he said of being in D.C. “We’re here to make sure that the administration hears us as best as we can.”
ADN reporter Alex Demarban contributed.