This is no refuge: Arctic drilling foes have a challenge rallying against Willow project

People with signs in a park
Anti-Willow protestors gathered in Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, on Jan. 10, 2023. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The Biden administration says it will decide by the end of February whether to allow ConocoPhillips’ Willow project to move ahead in Alaska’s western Arctic. National environmental groups have been rallying opposition to the $8 billion oil drilling proposal.

In many ways, it’s a classic Arctic drilling fight playing out in Washington, D.C., with the state and Alaska’s congressional delegation pushing for the project while drilling opponents talk about the danger to wildlife, the habitat and the climate. 

But a recent anti-Willow protest at the White House wasn’t large enough to dominate the adjacent Lafayette Square. 

“Let me just get out a few signs really quick, so folks know we’re here,” said Monica Scherer of the Alaska Wilderness League, as the protest began to coalesce. “Hi, everyone. Thank you. Thank you for coming …We’re so happy you’re here to help stop the Willow project. “

When the fight was over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or in Arctic waters, demonstrations at the Capitol and the White House were often huge, with at least one person dressed in a polar bear suit.

Willow has not risen to ANWR-level controversy, though it would be the largest North Slope drilling project since the 1990s. ConocoPhillips says it would create hundreds of jobs, boost output of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline by 20% and deliver billions in revenue to government at all levels. 

One problem for those trying to stop it is the land designation: Willow isn’t in ANWR. The land it would sit on is called the National Petroleum Reserve.

The Indiana-sized tract of federal land was set aside 100 years ago, for the Navy, as the Naval Petroleum Reserve. But now modern environmental laws apply.

Robert Dewey, a veteran of many Arctic protests in Washington, D.C., is vice president for government relations for Defenders of Wildlife. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Robert Dewey came to the protest with a large contingent from the offices of Defenders of Wildlife, where he is vice president of government affairs. He fought to keep oil development out of ANWR, too.

“There’s a lot of similarities. It’s just, of course, different because the public can relate to a habitat that’s called a national wildlife refuge probably better than they can one that the Willow project is in,”  he said.  “I think that’s one of our challenges – to educate the public that the ecological values are similar.”

The Alaska Wilderness League says opponents sent President Biden 120,000 comments objecting to the Willow project. That’s not nothing. But proposals to open ANWR to drilling could draw more than a million comments.

Getting Willow approved is a top priority of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and she uses the land designation to help make her point.

“This is important, really, for the country. This is a significant project,” she said at a Senate hearing last year. “And if we can’t produce oil resources within the National Petroleum Reserve – it causes one to question: Where?”

In December, Congresswoman Mary Peltola joined Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan at the White House to nudge the Biden administration to approve it.

One elected official who doesn’t want the Willow project approved Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of Nuiqsut, the nearest community.

“We want to feel safe in our homes and our daily lives and to be able to continue to be Inupiat in our lands and waters, and eat our foods,” she told reporters at the White House demonstration. “And that they’re healthy for our families.”

Dark haired woman in floral kuspuk outdoors
Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak ardently opposes the Willow project. She believes it threatens the subsistence foods her community needs. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Ahtuangaruak’s presence added weight to the protest. She was also in Washington to make her pitch to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the job. Haaland has pledged to listen to Indigenous people.

But plenty of Inupiat want to see Willow developed, including the mayors of other North Slope communities, and they’re talking to Haaland, too. Groups like Voice of the Arctic Inupiat say the revenues would sustain their culture.

Congresswoman Peltola says the consensus of the region is in favor of Willow. 

“Not everyone has the same exact feeling about it, but it’s the majority and [you] read the region as a whole,” she said. “Clusters of villages come to a consensus, even if there are outlier voices.”

Peltola said the Biden administration is taking a careful approach but she’s hopeful that Willow will get the nod. 

President Biden is under pressure from all sides. The right wants increased domestic production and is hammering him about high fuel prices. The left wants him to make good on pledges to take climate change seriously and reduce drilling on federal lands.

In Lafayette Square, a few dozen people chanted anti-Willow Slogans for about half an hour and posed for group photos holding identical “stop Willow” signs. Then they rolled up their banners and dispersed. 

Meanwhile, the man with the loudspeaker broadcasting Bible verses played on.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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