Don’t make the natives pay Willow’s price

For Indigenous people, defending our rights to clean air and water, continuing to live off the land and protecting the sacredness of Mother Earth is the fight of our lives. Unfortunately, communities like mine continue to be ignored at every turn and are left to fend for themselves as the devastating effects of our current energy policies destroy our way of life.

That’s exactly what’s happening now as President Biden rushes toward approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska, a stone’s throw from home. The Biden administration is moving forward with a huge oil and gas project that is a climate disaster waiting to happen, refusing to listen to the voices of my constituents and the community, who will bear the burden of this project with our health and our livelihoods.

Make no mistake, Willow will be the largest new oil project on federal lands and cause irreversible damage to the sensitive Arctic landscape. The proposed development will include construction of up to 250 oil wells, 37 miles of dirt roads, 386 miles of pipeline, airstrips and processing plants.

My hometown Nuiqsut is the closest town to the proposed Willow Project, and we have a lot to lose. Our people feed their families with traditional subsistence activities such as fishing and hunting for caribou, elk, birds and more. The Willow Project’s massive infrastructure would have bulldozed through these crucial habitats, redirecting the animals’ migration paths away from nearby villages and endangering the food security of local people. Not to mention the damage caused by exposure to air and water pollution that 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 left to contend with the health impacts of pollution and the devastation that results from dramatic changes to the land we live on such as melting sea ​​ice, permafrost thaw and coastal erosion. Approvals of more oil and gas projects in the Arctic will only add more threats to our way of life.

Our communities deserved a say. In Nuiqsut, we urged the Department of the Interior (DOI) to schedule the public input portion of the supplemental environmental review process for the project based on our hunting season and livelihood activities, knowing that many of those who oppose or are worried about the project would be absent at the hunting camp.

There is no time to read documents, post comments or organize in opposition when our people are out hunting. Not hunting for our livelihoods is not an option – the food our communities are harvesting now will help us get through the winter.

The Secretary of the Interior – who is herself an indigenous person – knows these things. And for a moment, it seemed like her department did, too. Unfortunately, after feigning concern and promising to extend the comment period through September, the department went back on its word and tightened the shortest comment period allowed by law during the worst possible time for the region. This all happened after the draft Environmental Impact Supplementary Statement was released on a Friday evening in the summer, which is what the government does when it wants 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 extending our unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels while perpetrating yet another gross injustice in towards indigenous communities. If the government chooses the wrong fork in the road, our families will struggle to put food on the table. We will have to leave our history and culture behind. And Indigenous people will continue to suffer and die from respiratory disease at a disproportionate rate.

From food security and chronic disease to physical and mental health, culture and traditions, there is much at stake for Nuiqsut and our neighbours. It’s long gone that we – and indigenous peoples around the world – have a say in our energy policy.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak is the mayor of Nuiqsut, Alaska.

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