I took some time off to see my family in early March. Within a day of returning, it felt like I hadn’t left at all.
Instead, I felt like someone delivered a soggy old cabbage sandwich made up of somewhat good news stuffed with clearly bad news. I’m as hungry for good news as anyone, but this dish tastes bitter.
And you know the feeling when you come home after a break from daily life and then after taking that break it feels more like a dream than something that actually happened?
Anyway, let me explain the old cabbage sandwich.
On the weekend before I got home, Biden’s Interior Department released a press release about a vague plan to stop drilling in offshore areas of the Arctic and other places. Do we know what these protections look like or if they’re durable? No, we don’t. Good news, maybe?
On Monday—my first day back at the office after delayed flights kept me from sleep—the Biden administration approved the second Willow oil and gas proposal in the western Arctic that allowed Conoco Phillips, with immediate construction permits in hand, to start building an ice road to a gravel mining site.
We sued the next day.
Hours later, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland withdrew from the department’s land trade with King Cove Corporation and removed the immediate threat to Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. We welcome this news wholeheartedly and hope that what happens next helps protect Izembek and the conservation and subsistence purposes of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in the long run.
Let’s just say that there’s a lot of uncertainty around what’s being protected and what’s being sacrificed.
What we do know is that politics and power drive what decisions get made and how they’re framed. Sandwiching a really bad decision between good things attempts to distract from that old soggy cabbage in the middle, but it can’t change how awful it tastes going down.
The fact is, the Willow decision is terrible for climate and biodiversity, no matter how many vague promises political and industry leaders make to climate action and biodiversity health.
There’s much we don’t know about what’s being proposed as protected and for how long, though we definitely know what’s not.
Nuiqsut is not protected. If the Willow project is built, Nuiqsut residents will bear even more of the consequences oil and gas extraction—polluted air and water, reduced access to food and cultural practices because of land and water degradation, the destruction of habitat, and pollution that impacts the health and lives of animals and people. So many in Nuiqsut already have significant health issues from the decades of oil exploitation that now surrounds them on three sides.
Climate is not protected. Willow will pump out oil to produce massive amounts greenhouse gases. It’s important to note that the oil and gas industry has already walked back COVID-era promises to reduce these emissions. A Washington News piece showed that instead of sticking to commitments to meaningful, effective climate action, these companies have taken in record profits, slashed efforts around alternative or clean energy, and doubled down on their plans to continue exploiting fossil fuels.
The Arctic ocean isn’t protected. Stopping offshore drilling won’t change the impacts of climate change as long as new oil and gas extraction is approved. Besides, companies had lost interest in drilling there anyway.
Izembek is protected, though what this means for future efforts to put commercial and economic interests over the conservation purposes of Izembek and other wildlife refuges in Alaska is unclear.
There’s an emotional burden to this work and I’m feeling that, for sure. As is the Trustees team that works so hard to stop bad projects so that all of us can work toward better solutions.
I also think there are real problems with how decisions get made. Federal law requires that agencies hold space for people to speak out—and we go to court to ensure that space—yet the people and entities with power and money have more access to decision makers and can exert more influence because they are treated as integral players in decision making. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable, the people and communities that will first and most intensely experience the impacts, get talked about and spoken to and treated like pawns to sacrifice.
It’s not wrong to want good jobs and community infrastructure and amenities; it’s not wrong to want sustainable energy and a livable planet for everyone.
What’s wrong is an economic and governing system that allows an industry to hold people and communities hostage to the false either/or choices it creates and presents as the only ones available and possible.
What’s wrong is resorting to misinformation campaigns to elevate these false choices while dehumanizing and sacrificing people to do it.
What’s wrong is a system that by design compels those with power and money to focus on amassing more power and money rather than pulling up their sleeves with the rest of us to solve problems like how to create clean energy choices and respond to the climate crisis without sacrificing other people.
What heartens me is the endless energy so many people in Alaska, the country, and the world bring to this work by speaking out and making headway despite these huge systemic problems.
The oil and gas industry may have backed away from its climate commitments, but massive numbers of people haven’t and won’t. They know what’s at stake. The feel it and see it. They want to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to support communities without requiring them to accept outcomes that put their health in peril and that have climate consequences we’re all trying to prevent.
I know we haven’t and won’t back away from this work. It’s what we do, and for many of us, who we are. I’m honored to be a part of it.
PS. Thanks to supporters like you, we can continue fighting to protect Alaska’s land, water, air, wildlife and