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Big Oil Wants to Refreeze Alaska Permafrost — So It Can Keep Drilling There

We have until August 29 to urge Biden to put an end to ConocoPhillips's colossal project of environmental violence.

A vehicle drives beside the melting permafrost tundra on the edge of the Bering Sea at the town of Quinhagak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 12, 2019.

If ConocoPhillips gets its way, there will soon be chillers on the Alaskan tundra, refreezing the ground so that it can support new oil drilling equipment. The Arctic permafrost is melting so fast, the company explains, that this perverse techno-solution is necessary.

Nothing better expresses the cruel absurdity at the heart of ConocoPhillips’s “Willow Project” — its 30-year plan to extract hundreds of millions of barrels of crude from ecologically sensitive lands of the far North.

If approved, this plan will fashion a new Prudhoe Bay atop increasingly unstable tundra, locking in decades of oil production even as the climate crisis destabilizes ecosystems in Alaska and around the world. Unless the Biden administration stops this project, ConocoPhillips will massively expand petroleum production on Alaska’s North Slope — beginning as early as this winter.

Endorsing the Trump-era plan undermines President Joe Biden’s climate promises, threatens the health of the Indigenous community of Nuiqsut, and continues the long tradition of sacrificing large swathes of Arctic Alaska to the short-term interests of the fossil fuel industry. It also perpetuates the fantasy held by many Alaskan political leaders that unsustainable resource extraction can remain their state’s primary economic model.

The Willow Master Development Plan is staggering in scale. ConocoPhillips, the Texas-based oil and gas giant, proposes to industrialize enormous stretches of land, filling it with sprawling spiderwebs of fossil fuel infrastructure. The project would build five new drill sites, as well as pipelines, a gravel mine, a processing facility, an airstrip, gravel roads, ice roads, and more, all on federal lands in the Western Arctic. At peak production, the Willow Project will yield over 180,000 barrels of oil per day, and ConocoPhillips plans to drill there for the next 30 years. According to the Washington Post, the company has privately told investors that it will extract 3 billion barrels of oil — five times more than the estimate used by government scientists to assess Willow’s climate impact. All ConocoPhillips needs now is for the Biden administration to grant final approval.

The company plans to construct this project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which — despite its name — is not a fossil fuel warehouse waiting to be tapped. Established in 1923 as the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 (to provide emergency fuel supplies to the Navy), it was renamed in 1976 and its management was transferred to the Department of the Interior. Spanning over 23 million acres, the reserve is the largest public land holding in the United States. It is also a vibrant and diverse ecological space sustaining huge populations of wildlife species that migrate from across the continent and around the world. Thousands upon thousands of shorebirds, waterfowl, loons, geese, and other birds seek shelter and sustenance in the reserve’s lakes and wetlands; beluga and bowhead whales, spotted seals, and other marine mammals feast in the neighboring waters; and the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, currently numbering over 50,000 animals, relies on the reserve as its calving grounds.

Moreover, the reserve is vital to the culture, health and food security of Iñupiat communities along the North Slope, making the Willow debate an urgent issue of environmental justice. The Iñupiat stewarded Arctic lands long before they were stolen by Russia in the 18th century and sold to the United States in 1867. Now, like other Indigenous communities across Alaska, they are on the front lines of the climate crisis. But Big Oil wants to turn more Indigenous homelands into industrialized oil fields.

In the Alpine fields, just east of the reserve, ConocoPhillips began drilling in the 1990s — and the effects were soon felt in the nearby Iñupiat community of Nuiqsut. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a community health aid at the time, began to notice an alarming spike in patients suffering from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

“I had to start staying up all night to help people breathe,” she recalled. “When you hold those little babies, and you see those sick little eyes, and you’re fighting for them to breathe, you get very active in the process of questioning what’s happening to our village.”

Ahtuangaruak is now the mayor of Nuiqsut. She emphasizes that the Alpine development has caused both ecological and social stresses in the community. Not wanting to let ConocoPhillips further encircle their village with fossil fuel development, Ahtuangaruak and others in Nuiqsut oppose the Willow Project. They are joined in this opposition by the advocacy group Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and many environmental organizations.

“We shouldn’t be sacrificed for the national energy policy,” Ahtuangaruak says. “Our way of life is important to us. We want to continue to harvest food on our lands and waters.”

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has taken a page from the Trump playbook in refusing community requests to extend the comment period on the controversial project. This blatant disregard for Indigenous rights stifles community participation and appears to cater to ConocoPhillips’s efforts to rush the approval process.

ConocoPhillips has made clear that the Willow Project is designed for expansion and that it will pave the way for the next great Alaska hub for fossil fuel development. With petroleum production in decline elsewhere in the state, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other political leaders are enthusiastically backing the project, believing that it will pump more oil into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and inject more oil revenues into state coffers.

Chillers on the tundra may sound like an image ripped from a climate dystopian novel, but they may soon be a reality in the northern reaches of Alaska. The hubris of ConocoPhillips must be stopped. Refreezing the melting permafrost so that more oil can be extracted will only heat Arctic lands — and the planet — even more. Last year, President Biden promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. While recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act has been celebrated for its historic climate investments, approving the Willow Project would undercut this progress and follow the science-denying path of his predecessor. The public has until August 29 to urge the Biden administration to put an end to this colossal project of environmental violence.

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