WASHINGTON — Protesters, some traveling from as far as the North Slope village of Nuiqsut, rallied in front of the White House Tuesday, calling on the Biden administration to block a major Alaska oil project.
The $8 billion ConocoPhillips development prospect, dubbed the Willow project, would be located on federal land in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and is expected to produce more than 180,000 barrels of oil per day. The Biden administration has committed to releasing a final environmental report for the project before February and a final decision before March.
The project has support from Alaska’s congressional delegation and some Indigenous groups like the Alaska Federation of Natives who see Willow as a boon for jobs and the economy. However, it has drawn increasing opposition from conservation groups who say the project threatens wildlife and will worsen climate change.
About 40 of the project’s opponents, many representing national environmental groups, gathered at the White House Tuesday, chanting, “hey hey, ho ho, the Willow project has got to go.”
Among the protesters was Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of Nuiqsut, the village closest to the proposed project. Ahtuangaruak told reporters that she has health concerns about the project and that it would imperil local caribou and fish populations necessary for subsistence.
During her trip to Washington, D.C., Ahtuangaruak met with Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, who is pushing for the project’s approval. Ahtuangaruak said she also has plans to meet with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Wednesday.
The Interior Department did not confirm the meeting. An Interior Department spokesperson on Tuesday also said they did not have an update on the decision timeline for Willow.
Ahtuangaruak said she wanted Haaland to know about opposition to the Willow project in Nuiqsut.
“People don’t know that because others can come here very easily because they have the money,” Ahtuangaruak said. “People like us, it’s hard for us to get here, and so our voices are not continually engaged to tell the concerns that we have.”
A ConocoPhillips spokesperson in an email highlighted support from several Alaska Native leaders for the project, including Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and Harry Brower Jr., mayor of the North Slope Borough that includes Nuiqsut.
“Willow is an important project to Alaska Native communities, the state of Alaska and our country,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “The project will produce some of the most environmentally and socially responsible barrels of oil in the world, while providing extensive economic and employment opportunities.”
“Willow has undergone a comprehensive regulatory process for nearly five years with extensive public input, and Alaska Native communities on the North Slope have repeatedly voiced their support for the project,” the spokesperson said. “We look forward to a timely Record of Decision to enable this project to move forward in service of the public interest.”
Voice of Arctic Iñupiat, an organization representing Iñupiat groups on the North Slope, also responded to the protest with a statement promoting Willow.
“Outside groups from nearly 4,000 miles away are actively co-opting our voices and promoting misinformation to the Biden Administration in an effort to drown out the perspectives of the local communities and regional leadership who overwhelmingly support the Willow Project,” the statement said. “Those actively working to stop the Willow Project threaten our Iñupiaq culture that relies on and coexists with projects like Willow.”
Before the rally, organizers said they electronically submitted 123,935 comments to the Biden administration against the project. Monica Scherer, director of outreach with the Alaska Wilderness League, said environmental groups have been working for months to block the project and have focused on bringing people in the Lower 48 up to speed on Willow.
Sonia Ahkivgak, who is based in Fairbanks and works for the conservation group Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, wore a “Protect the Arctic” hat distributed at the rally.
“The Willow project would be built on my traditional homelands of the Iñupiat in the Arctic,” Ahkivgak said. “We’re far too along in the climate crisis to continue investing in fossil fuel infrastructure, especially one that would lock us into extraction for another 30 years.”
Eunice Brower, a Native Village of Nuiqsut tribal council member at the protest, said if the Biden administration approves the project, she will continue working to stop construction.
“We still have to continue fighting if we want to try to protect our lifestyle and our livelihood,” Brower said.
This story has been updated to include the statement from Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat.