The Arctic Sounder

North Slope leaders and environmentalists comment on Willow project statement

A plan to extract more oil on the North Slope — via the Willow project — received a new environmental review last month. Now North Slope Borough political leaders are reviewing the new document and local environmental groups are criticizing it. The public is invited to provide written comments on the review and attend public meetings, two of which will happen in person in Utqiagvik and Nuiqsuit.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management released in late June a draft supplemental environmental impact statement on the Willow Project considered in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. After the federal court rejected approval for Willow last year, BLM put together a statement to address the issues identified by the court; include “the corrected and expanded analysis of potential climate impacts;” and to provide development alternatives to the project.

Willow Project is expected to create more than 2,000 construction jobs, 300 permanent jobs, and, after years of development, to bring more than 100,000 barrels of oil daily for decades, which can help stabilize oil prices and support Alaska’s economy, according to ConocoPhillips. On the other side, the project is estimated to add more than 250 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere over the next 30 years, which is roughly a third of all U.S. coal plants, according to BLM.

While the majority of Alaska lawmakers praise the project for how it can benefit oil production and jobs, conservation groups criticize it, saying it would contribute to global warming, harm subsistence hunters and threaten habitats for migratory birds, caribou and polar bears.

The North Slope Borough Mayor had no comment on the new statement last week, while his team was still working to review the latest document, but the borough has been lending its support to the Willow project overall, according to David J. Fauske, director of government and external affairs for the borough.

“Willow Project will not only lead to jobs and less dependency on Russian oil, but better schools, health clinics and transportation infrastructure for our region and state,” Fauske said. “If the project can be developed responsibly like other fields have been, the North Slope Borough will continue to support it.”

Fauske said that the borough has been participating in overseeing zoning for the Willow project, and that the oversight by the borough, state and federal officials has led to “some of the strictest environmental regulations in our nation and one of the best examples of responsible development in the world.”


“We are proud of the scrutiny these projects face as that’s what keeps our animals safe, our people healthy, and the environment pristine,” Fauske said. “However, this new administration has ignored all of our previous comments and public meetings and we hope that changes with this new announcement once we have time to weigh in on the new details and our residents attend the public meetings.”

Other North Slope leaders – including President and CEO of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Rex A. Rock Sr., Executive Director of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope Morrie Lemen Jr. and Mayor of the City of Atqasuk Douglas Whiteman – praised the economic benefits of the project and the environmental review. Rock said that “every delay in the project also delays the economic, infrastructure and employment benefits the project will bring to North Slope communities,” and Whiteman said that the “regulatory process would be better served by more effective implementation of process and less evaluation by political trends.”

Climate, Indigenous and conservation leaders criticized the new BLM statement, saying that the project will affect subsistence users, harm the nearby community of Nuiqsut and erase the climate benefits of renewable energy that the Biden administration has promised on public lands and waters by 2030.

“We should be able to continue to be the Nuiqsut people, as our Elders taught us on these lands and waters feeding our families,” Nuiqsut City Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak said. “Our community is important, and we should not be sacrificed for the national energy policy.”

Ahtuangaruak said that the area in question for Willow project is vital to Nuiqsut residents who hunt there. Developing that land around Teshekpuk Lake can reduce the number of caribou migrating through there.

The timing of the Department of the Interior’s permitting process is another point of criticism: Ahtuangaruak said that she and other community leaders asked the department to make sure the release of new documents and the commenting period don’t overlap with subsistence activities, yet that request wasn’t honored. She said that many leaders and hunters won’t be able to prepare the comments because they are at camp at this time.

“I haven’t even gotten to read the document,” she said. “We’re preparing to get our hunting done as the caribou migration comes through, it should be coming through in this area soon. … You asked us for our subsistence timeline, we share them with you, and then you ram the Environmental Impact Statement down our throats in the heart of this time.”

Other leaders– from organizations such as Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Trustees for Alaska and Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic – also spoke against the project and the released review.

“This project being pushed in our current climate crisis is devastating,” Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, said in a prepared statement. “The Bureau of Land Management continues to be the yes-people for oil and gas exploitation, no matter the cost to health or our climate.”

Willow project is located to the west of Alpine field, where on March 4, ConocoPhillips detected a natural gas blowout. The company removed 300 employees and insisted that the neighboring village of Nuiqsut was safe, but some Nuiqsut families still evacuated fearing that it was too dangerous to stay, Ahtuangaruak said.

ConocoPhillips’ incident report indicated that thawing permafrost made the leak more severe, raising questions about thawing permafrost and climate change affecting the Willow Project’s design.

BLM opens a comment period on the new statement on Aug. 29, 2022, particularly concerning the adequacy and accuracy of the proposed alternatives, the analysis of its respective management decisions, and any new information that would help develop the final plan. Comments can be submitted online at or by mail, to BLM Alaska State Office, ATTN: Willow MDP SDEIS, 222 W. 7th Ave, Stop 13, Anchorage, AK 99513.

The agency plans to hold in-person public meetings in Utqiagvik and Nuiqsut, as well as three virtual public meetings. Five public meetings will be held next month: The Nuiqsut meeting will take place on Aug. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Kisik Community Center, and the Utqiagvik meeting will happen on Aug. 10 at 6 p.m. at the Inupiat Heritage Learning Center. Three online meetings will be held on Aug. 8, Aug. 15 and Aug. 17.

After the close of the comment period, BLM will review and respond to the comments, and incorporate them into the final statement.

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.