OPINION: Willow highlights clash between economic development, environmental stewardship

The decision whether to allow oil development on NPR-A’s Willow prospect is coming to a head.

Many people are saying enough is enough when it comes to new oil development. We need to reverse the heating of the Earth before it’s too late, and therefore we need to invest in methods of producing energy that doesn’t burn fossil fuels instead of new oil development.

Then there are groups, especially in Alaska, that are saying that we need oil at least for the short term, which for this oil field is at least 20 years, so we might as well get it from Alaska, where we “do it right.” They’re calling it “gap oil,” until we get more renewables online.

Many are touting the upside of the project, in that it will provide more jobs and revenue for Alaska, which needs both. Many do support the project, including the governor (who doesn’t believe global warming is caused by humans), labor unions, local communities and many of the Alaska Native corporations. One thing that isn’t mentioned too often is that most of these groups have much to gain from the project.

As for jobs, there will be many, but unfortunately many of these jobs recently have been going to out-of-state residents. They fly from the Lower 48 to work and return home to where it’s cheaper to live. They don’t support the Alaska economy.

As for state revenue, since Willow is on federal land, the royalties go the federal government. Although they share a portion of this royalty with Alaska, because Willow is in the National Petroleum Reserve, this shared royalty is dedicated to impact grants for local municipalities. The state does get production tax, but because the owners of Willow also operate elsewhere on the North Slope, they can write off their expenses against their current profits, which means the state will actually lose tax money at first, and it will take several years to realize any gains.

One of the big winners are the Alaska Native corporations. They are for-profit private corporations, many of which are heavily invested in the oil industry. The Arctic Slope Regional Corp. (ASRC) states on its website that it has “emerged as the state’s largest oil field services company.” Another big winner is the North Slope Borough. They currently receive almost $400 million per year in property taxes from the valuation of the oil infrastructure that is currently on their land. If Willow is constructed, they will gain the tax value of the new infrastructure, which could be very significant. This is a municipality with a population of 11,000. There will also be hundreds of millions of dollars in federal impact aid flowing to them and other communities.


Alaska is facing many serious problems. One major issue is the decimation of the salmon population in the Yukon-Kuskokwim river system. This fishery has been the lifeblood of the native communities along the rivers for thousands of years. Now the fishery is often closed, and although no one has a definitive cause, many scientists believe the changing climate is the main reason.

The other phenomenon that is happening is coastal erosion. This is caused by the rising sea level and the loss of protective sea ice. Villages are being swallowed up and are forced to move to higher ground at great expense and much added disruption.

There was a picture in the Anchorage Daily News last year of Mayor Harry Brower Jr. of Utqiagvik helping build a seawall outside his community. In an issue of the New York Times, Brower stated his support for arctic oil development and asked Washington, D.C. politicians to leave it up to Alaskans to decide. I couldn’t help notice the disconnect between those two actions. On the one hand, he’s dealing with coastal erosion in his own backyard, and on the other hand, he’s supporting wholeheartedly the oil development that is leading to the erosion.

The loss of lifestyle and environment is monumental and perhaps irreversible. Will strong sea ice return? Will the salmon return? What about the caribou population? What happens if the changing climate affects the whale populations in Alaska as it has in other areas? Whaling is a central component of the North Slope Native communities. These all will have serious impacts for many, many, generations to come. It’s great to see a windfall profit from oil development, but what about the climate crisis that is affecting the world as a whole? Wildfires, floods, hurricanes, drought, famine and mass migration are happening worldwide, and the list goes on.

I’m not saying we can quit oil immediately, but should we open another multidecade development project in a very sensitive part of our ecosystem? I hope a compromise can be reached, and we can agree that we need to make some changes now, or else some drastic changes will be made for us — ones that we can never recover from.

Adam Wool is a businessman and former state representative. He lives in Fairbanks.

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