For indigenous peoples, protecting our rights to clean air and water, continuing to live off the land, and protecting the sacredness of Mother Earth is a struggle for our lives. Unfortunately, communities like mine continue to be ignored at every turn and left to fend for themselves as the devastating effects of our current energy policies destroy our way of life.
This is exactly what is happening now, as President Biden rushes to approve the ConocoPhillips Willow project in Alaska, just a stone’s throw from home. The Biden administration is moving forward with a massive 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 on our health and our livelihoods.
Make no mistake, Willow will be the largest new oil project on federal land and will cause irreversible damage to the sensitive Arctic landscape. The proposed development would include the construction of up to 250 oil wells, 37 miles of gravel roads, 386 miles of pipelines, airstrips and processing facilities.
My hometown, Nuiqsut, is closest to the proposed Iva project, and we have a lot to lose. Our people feed their families with traditional activities such as fishing and hunting for caribou, elk, birds and more. The vast infrastructure of Project Willow will be bulldozed right through these important habitats, redirecting the animals’ migration routes away from nearby villages and jeopardizing the food security of local residents. This is not to mention the damage from 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 have to contend with the health effects of pollution as well as the devastation caused by abrupt changes to the land we live on, such as melting sea ice, melting permafrost and coastal erosion. The approval of additional oil and gas projects in the Arctic will only add to the threats to our way of life.
Our communities have earned a voice. In Nuiqsut, we called on the Department of the Interior (DOI) to schedule public participation in the process of additional environmental review of the project in connection with our hunting and subsistence season, knowing that many of those who oppose or are concerned about the project will be absent. at the hunting camp.
There is no time to read documents, submit comments, or organize opposition when our people are in a hunting camp. Giving up hunting for food is not an option: the food our communities are now harvesting will help us get through the winter.
The Minister of the Interior, who is herself a native, knows these things. And for a moment it looked like her department did too. Unfortunately, after feigning unease and promising to extend the comment period until September, the department went back on its word and squeezed the shortest comment period legally allowed into the region’s worst time. This all comes after a draft supplementary environmental impact statement was released on Friday night in the summer, which is what the government does when it wants to cover up bad news.
It is time for the Biden administration to wake up and see Project Willow for what it is: a choice between moving towards a greener future while protecting all communities, or expanding our incurable dependence on fossil fuels while committing yet another grave injustice to indigenous peoples. If the administration chooses the wrong fork in the road, it will be difficult for our families to feed themselves. We will have to leave our history and culture behind. And indigenous peoples will continue to suffer and die from respiratory diseases 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 neighbors. It is high time that we – and indigenous peoples around the world – have a say in our energy policy.
Rosemary Ahtuangaruaq Mayor of Nuiksut, Alaska.