We Alaskans seem to be experiencing our own sort of March madness, a form that is both dark and dangerous and intimately connected to our state’s decadeslong love affair with the oil industry.
Once upon a time, that industry helped our young state achieve financial stability and the opportunity to grow and prosper. But there’s always been a darker side to this romance, which over the years has evolved into something closer to an unhealthy obsession, manifested by widespread worship of the petroleum industry, which in some quarters has become seen as a kind of savior.
Yet over the past quarter-century or so, it’s become increasingly clear that in certain ways Alaska has made a deal with the devil and, it can be argued, our leaders have traded our collective soul for the riches that oil development promises.
This loss of soul — or heart — is exhibited in many ways, among them greed, denial and a widespread entitlement mentality. The most recent example is the exuberant celebration that followed the Biden administration’s mid-March approval of the Willow project, a huge oil development venture within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) on our state’s North Slope.
This celebration was led by our political and business leaders, including some of Alaska’s most powerful Native groups. And it was done despite widespread recognition that the development and consumption of fossil fuels is the primary contributor to the climate crisis being experienced around the world. (Though some may take issue with my choice of climate “crisis,” in fact it has become just that in many parts of the world, including Alaska, while disrupting the lives of millions of people, not to mention the many other species that inhabit our life-giving planet.)
It’s noteworthy that only a week after the announcement of the Willow project’s federal go-ahead, a United Nations panel of scientists warned that we humans need to cut about two-thirds of our carbon pollution by 2035 to prevent potentially cataclysmic harm to the planet and our species. That’s about the same time oil production from the Willow prospect would be in full swing, adding huge amounts of fuel to the carbon-fired global crisis.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an end to new fossil fuel exploration, even as the media reported that development of Willow could very well (to quote an ADN front-page banner headline), “pave way for more NPR-A drilling.”
Not that any of Alaska’s leaders are paying much attention to such dire warnings as those issued by the United Nations. Here it’s all about the imagined monetary riches that come with the development of another huge North Slope oil field.
Loudest among the cheerleaders for this new project are members of our Congressional delegation, our governor, and Native entities connected to the North Slope (for instance, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., North Slope Borough and a group called the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope). The latter maintains that Willow “represents a new opportunity to ensure our Indigenous, Alaska Native communities’ 10,000 years of history has a viable future.”
What those groups — and our state’s politicians — conveniently fail to mention is that the Inupiat mayor of Nuiqsut, the Native community closest to Willow, has strongly opposed the project because of concerns it could harm subsistence hunting and the community’s health. Another Alaska Native group, “Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic,” has also opposed Willow. So Alaska’s Native voice is actually split on this new oil project.
One other thing that discussions of the Willow project have largely failed to include, at least in media stories that I’ve read and heard: The Arctic is warming at something like two to four times the rate of the world as a whole. And we’re already seeing some disastrous consequences of this.
Why is there no mention of the largely Native villages whose communities are threatened by increased coastal erosion and flooding, some of which have already begun to relocate to safer places at enormous costs? A 2019 study done for the Denali Commission identified 31 villages that face “imminent threats from flooding and erosion” tied to climate change, including at least a dozen that had begun to relocate or were “exploring relocation options.”
Carbon-fueled climate change is clearly harming them, and additional oil production and use will likely put other Native communities at risk. Not to mention the Arctic and sub-Arctic ecosystems that are already being disrupted by the warming atmosphere, melting glaciers and sea ice and associated ocean acidification. To give one prime example: many of the salmon runs in our “salmon state,” have seen greatly diminished returns in recent years, and changing ocean conditions are almost certainly a major factor.
Listen to our state’s political leaders and you’d think that only the usual suspects — ”environmental extremists” — are opposed to the Willow project. First, I would argue that opposition is much more widespread, even in Alaska. Second, I would call such climate-change activists “realists,” much more attuned to what’s happening to our world — and Alaska — than our political and business leaders.
My hope is that those opposed to Willow somehow prevail and that Alaska’s politicians and other leaders be forced to adapt to a changing climate, a changing world, and find a path that moves us away from the oil-centric madness that’s been building for years, an insanity that is already doing great harm within our state.
Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”
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