For Indigenous Peoples, defending our rights to clean air and water, keeping the land alive and protecting the sanctity of Mother Earth is the battle of our lives. Sadly, communities like mine continue to be ignored at every step and left to fend for themselves as the devastating effects of our current energy policies wreak havoc on our way of life.
That is exactly what is happening now as President Biden moves toward approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska, just a stone’s throw from home. The Biden administration is moving forward with a huge oil and gas project that is a climate catastrophe 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 livelihood.
Make no mistake, Willow will be the largest new oil recovery project on federal land and will cause irreversible damage to the sensitive Arctic landscape. The proposed development includes the construction of up to 250 oil wells, 60 kilometers of unpaved roads, 600 kilometers 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 such as fishing and hunting for caribou, moose, birds and more. The Willow Project’s massive infrastructure would bulldoze right through these critical habitats, diverting the animals’ migratory routes, diverting them from nearby villages and endangering the food security of the local population. Not to mention the damage from exposure to air and water pollution 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 shipped around the world, our communities in the Arctic are battling the health effects of pollution and the devastation resulting from dramatic changes in the land we live on, such as melting sea ice, thawing of permafrost and coastal erosion. Approval of additional oil and gas projects in the Arctic will only further threaten our way of life.
Our communities deserved a say. In Nuiqsut, we urged the Department of the Interior (DOI) to plan the public input portion of the additional environmental assessment process for the project around our hunting season and livelihood activities, knowing that many of those who are against or concerned about the project would be gone at hunting camp.
There is no time to read documents, submit comments or organize resistance when our people are at hunting camp. Not hunting for our livelihood is not an option – the food our communities are now harvesting will help us get through the winter.
The Home Secretary – who is himself an Indigenous person – knows these things. And for a moment it seemed as if her department did too. Unfortunately, after feigning concern and promising to extend the comment period to September, the department went back on its word and squeezed the shortest comment period allowed by law during the worst possible time for the region. All this happened after the draft supplemental environmental impact statement was released on a summer Friday evening, 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 transitioning to a greener future while protecting all communities or prolonging our unsurvivable addiction to fossil fuels while committing another grave injustice to indigenous communities. If the administration chooses the wrong split, our families will struggle to put food on the table. We will have to leave our history and culture behind. And Indigenous peoples will continue to suffer and die disproportionately from respiratory diseases.
From food security and chronic disease to physical and mental health to culture and traditions, the stakes are high for Nuiqsut and our neighbors. It is time for us – and indigenous peoples around the world – to have a say in our energy policies.
Rosemary Ahtuangaruak is the mayor of Nuiqsut, Alaska.