It’s hard to imagine any place in the United States that is more precarious, more rugged, or home to people more tenacious than the North Slope of Alaska. A frigid region of tundra and coast roughly the size of Oregon, it is home about 10,000 residents scattered across eight communities, the largest of which is Utqiagvik, formerly named Barrow. The region’s economy is driven mostly by activities on and near the largest oil field in the country, Prudhoe Bay, which operates under some of the most extreme conditions on Earth. The North Slope is also defined by the rhythms of a much older set of Alaska Native subsistence practices, such as fishing, whaling, and caribou-hunting.
Once you spend time in this place, it’s clearer why it’s so difficult for Alaska to unwind its economic dependence on oil and gas, and why many political leaders in the state are pushing for developments like the Willow Project, the largest proposed new oil project in the US, despite the fact the climate change is already wreaking havoc here and could get far worse. The Willow Project, which could receive a final determination from the Biden administration within a week, would sit within the North Slope—on the east edge of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the largest piece of federal land in the country. This is hotly contested land because it is both an oil field and a vast wilderness full of migratory birds, bears, and caribou. The new development would pump out about 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years and release about 280 million metric tons of total climate-warming carbon emissions—or the rough equivalent of two and a half coal-fired power plants over the same time period, according to InsideClimate News. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management released a supplemental environmental impact assessment for the project that included a preferred alternative with a slightly smaller footprint—three drilling pads instead of five—suggesting that the Biden administration may be ready to move ahead, though the Department of Interior has expressed “substantial concerns” still, including “direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions.”
The Arctic feels the overall global impacts of such emissions more acutely than most other parts of the world, warming four times faster than the global average. Moreover, 85 percent of Alaska sits atop permafrost—ice-rich, millennia-old frozen ground that is now eroding, sinking, and coming apart as temperatures warm.
Environmental groups and other progressives have urged the Biden administration to block the Willow Project. But this month, several North Slope leaders visited Washington, D.C., to voice their support for the project “to sustain our way of life,” said Crawford Patkotak, board chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a native corporation owned by Iñupiaq shareholders and the largest Alaska-based company. Others have strenuously objected, including Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of Nuiqsut, the village closest to the proposed project. “We have the most to lose,” she wrote in an opinion piece in The Hill.
Our people feed their families with traditional subsistence activities like fishing and hunting caribou, moose, birds, and more. The Willow project’s massive infrastructure would bulldoze straight through these crucial habitats, redirecting the animal’s migratory paths, moving them away from nearby villages, and endangering the food security of local people. That’s not to mention the damage from exposure to air and water pollution that we face.
Both Patkotak’s and Ahtuangaruak’s views may hold truth. The North Slope and the state of Alaska depend on oil and gas to sustain themselves—and that economy is simultaneously wreaking permanent damage on both the Arctic and the rest of the planet.
When I visited North Slope and the village of Wainwright, an Alaska Native whaling community beside the western end of the petroleum reserve, in 2019, a few months before the pandemic began, ConocoPhillips was already pursuing a permit for the Willow Project. I interviewed dozens of people there about their experiences of climate change. On the day that I arrived in Wainwright, I rode with two staff members from the regional housing authority on a tour of old and new village housing stock—some of it drafty, overcrowded, and in disrepair. Some houses were going off-kilter, tilting and sinking because the collapse of permafrost beneath them was causing them to shift. At the end of the day, we drove to the outskirts of town—to a beach on the Chukchi Sea. There we gaped at the sight of a bluff that had collapsed so thoroughly it had formed a sort of Arctic arroyo—dwarf shrubs sunken into a muddy ravine with a cascade of meltwater gushing through the middle of it. Climate change was literally tearing this place apart, and over the next several days, I heard stories of inconsistent and strange weather, unstable winter ice at the shore, and landslides upriver.
“Climate change is huge,” Amos Nashookpuk, a Wainwright resident, told me. “It’s affecting us.” Nashookpuk was then working at the Wainwright City Chambers—a little blue building with a handpainted sign on the front, a dingy floor, and old wood paneling on the walls, which were also covered with posters, maps, notices, and old photographs. (Nashookpuk has gone on to hold a series of local and regional leadership positions on the North Slope, including for a time serving as Wainwright’s mayor—though when I met him he was speaking only for himself and not in an official capacity.) He looked both wistful, perplexed, and a little worried about the subject of oil development. Wainwright had seen other development possibilities come and go. In 2015, the village could have become a hub for Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore drilling operations—but the company failed to find enough oil to make their venture worthwhile and the Obama administration thereafter banned offshore drilling. “That could have been Wainwright,” he told me, pointing to a set of plans that showed the village with a bigger airport and large new shipping dock. He said people in Wainwright were divided on this kind of development: Some wished for it, but it would also entail significant risks and complications.
Oil and gas development on the North Slope subsidizes important services and infrastructure. “What we’re able to afford,” Nashookpuk went on, “we’re just at a different level than any other region”—which is to say that they have amenities like running water, flush toilets, and a well-stocked health clinic, things that most Americans would take for granted but that are not guaranteed in remote parts of this state. The North Slope Borough—the regional government entity that provides vast range of services from road-building and flood protection to policing, animal control, and medical services—draws the majority of its revenue from taxes related to oil and gas operations. As a result, North Slope villages have a few more resources than communities in some other rural regions of Alaska.
However, it is striking that one of the most profitable industries on Earth hasn’t brought far more benefits, opportunities, or material comfort to such places. Moreover, oil exploration comes with numerous risks and consequences. Pipeline leaks on the Slope can foul tundra ecosystems and lakes and be difficult to repair under extreme Arctic conditions. Those living closest to North Slope drilling operations have complained of respiratory illnesses that they blame on the industry’s air pollution.
Despite these troubles and the financial volatility of the industry, fossil fuel extraction is still the backbone of the Alaskan economy—ever since the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 on state land. In 1971, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which gave the state’s Indigenous communities nearly $1 billion and 44 million acres, in exchange for relinquishing their remaining land rights—clearing the way for the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. (At the time, only the Arctic region’s leaders objected, arguing that the settlement “places us at the mercy of the frontier philosophy of Alaska and Federal paternalism.”) The new law also set up Alaska Native Corporations—such as the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC)—a corporate structure unique to Alaska that often ties the economic fortunes of Indigenous Alaskan shareholders to resource development. (ASRC leases some of its own landholdings for oil drilling, for instance.) In 1976, Alaskan voters approved a state constitutional amendment to set up the Permanent Fund, a sort of guaranteed basic income also derived from oil revenue. These steps “made Alaska as we know it today possible,” writes longtime Alaska political analyst Tim Bradner.
In 2022, the dividend was more than $3,000, one of the largest in the state’s history—given to everyone, adult and child, who has lived in Alaska for the entire preceding year. It’s an extraordinary model of revenue-sharing, and it’s not hard to imagine why Alaskans wouldn’t be ready to see it vanish. But Prudhoe isn’t all that reliable any more. In 1989, production at Prudhoe peaked and has since been declining in most years. Industry squeezed out a mild increase in production in 2022, and Willow is the largest of several efforts to try to reinvigorate oil output there. But the global oil market is so volatile that many investors have been leaving. In early 2020, the price of oil dropped to less than zero. More recently, the Anchorage Daily News reported that the price of oil had dipped so low that the state could bust its budget before the end of this fiscal year in June 2023.
For years, some Alaskan leaders have warned that oil and gas couldn’t fuel the state forever. In an effort to cultivate alternatives to fossil-fuel power, Alaska created a Renewable Energy Fund in 2008 to award grants to utilities, local governments, and tribal councils for new electricity-generation and heating projects. (In 2009, former governor Sarah Palin even called on the state to source half of its power from renewables—less than a year after chanting “drill, baby, drill” during her unsuccessful campaign as John McCain’s vice-presidential pick.) In 2010, the state set an aspirational goal: 50 percent renewable power by 2025. But in 2016 and 2017, when the declining price of oil shrank the state budget, Alaska ran out of money to support these projects. “Since that time, little new renewable generation has been commissioned in the state,” according to the Renewable Energy Alaska Project. The potential remains: a quarter of Alaska’s electricity now comes from hydropower. Especially in rural areas, the state has a number of hybrid systems that combine diesel power plants with solar, wind, and other renewables, and Alaska has vast untapped resources for tidal power generation.
Despite all this, it’s not clear how Alaska will wean itself off oil and gas, especially when so many kinds of funding there are tied to fossil fuel revenues. This is one of the justifications Mary Peltola—a Democrat and the first Alaska Native member of Congress—gave for her support for the Willow Project, via a press release, for revenue to “pay for essential state services like public safety and investments in our education system” and to “give Alaska a fighting chance to find new paths forward to a cleaner economy.” The lawmaker told Alaska Public Media that she thinks a consensus of the North Slope region favors the project.
But it’s hard to see how the Willow Project makes sense in the grand scheme. Climate scientists couldn’t be clearer about how close the world is to calamity. In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was unequivocal: there can be no new fossil fuel developments if the world is going to chart a path out of utter climate catastrophe. There is no more space in the atmosphere.
Hitching anyone’s destiny to fossil fuels for another three decades will only compound climate disasters already in the making. In the long run, such disasters will only put further pressure on communities already strained by the impact of industry. In October and December 2020, federal government officials held scoping meetings with Nuiqsut and took down their statements of concern. “All agencies are fast-tracking this project at the expense of Nuiqsut residents,” said one. “Everything is politicized when it comes to development. This is about our subsistence way of life, not development,” commented another.
There aren’t any easy ways to balance all of the conflicting needs or lessen the stakes, but opponents of the project are clear what they want. “We need a Just Transition from an extractive industry that has held communities in an economic hostage situation for decades,” wrote a group called Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic in a public letter opposing the project, signed by 38 Indigenous-led organizations from across the country. Instead of opening more public lands to drilling, the federal government could be doubling down on sustainable investments—even in remote places like the North Slope. Instead of leaning into oil, we could be having a more robust national discussion about climate justice—and what responsibility we all hold to help places dependent on fossil fuels restructure their economies.
Any answer must reckon with the debt those of us living far from the Arctic owe to the places that have supplied this country with energy for decades. And any answer has to wrestle with the kinds of quandaries people face in these regions—squeezed between the threat of climate change and immediate need to provide for their communities.