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I’m a lifelong environmentalist: President Biden was right on Willow 

If you care about meeting our climate change goals and preserving a planet that our children will want to inhabit, now is the time to support President Biden — including his decision to move forward with Alaska’s Willow energy project. As environmentalists, we cannot afford to live in a world ignorant of Russian and Chinese aggression, nor can we engage in neo-colonialism that denies Alaska Natives the ability to develop their own resources. President Biden has passed the most ambitious climate change legislation in U.S. history, has elevated indigenous voices in federal decision-making, and has been the most pro-working class president since FDR. We should support him now, and recognize that anti-Indigenous, anti-blue collar environmental activism is dangerous and self-defeating. 

Let’s consider the context of Willow oil development. Alaska’s 229 federally-recognized Tribes, and dozens of Alaska Native regional and village corporations are powerful drivers of economic opportunity for Indigenous people and the whole state. North Slope residents and allies across the state established a borough and corresponding taxation authority decades ago. Since that time, the North Slope Borough has invested proceeds from oil development in transportation and public health programs, driving rapid improvements in life expectancy. North Slope local governments, Alaska Native organizations, and Alaska Native elected officials representing the North Slope have led the effort to get Willow development approved. 

The Willow project will produce billions of dollars for the state of Alaska to fund education and human services, but immediately-impacted North Slope residents will receive the lion’s share of benefits. Billions in property tax revenue to sustain schools, health clinics, and infrastructure, but well over a billion dollars into a community impact fund to continue deploying renewable energy and other much-needed infrastructure improvements that directly confront the realities of climate change.   

The North Slope has experienced the most extreme temperature changes of anywhere in America: Alaska’s average temperatures have increased at twice the rate of the Lower 48, and the North Slope’s temperatures have increased at double the rate of Alaska as a whole. In the last 50 years, North Slope temperatures have increased a shocking 12 degrees Fahrenheit since 1976, leading to ecosystem chaos that makes it much more difficult for residents to harvest subsistence resources like caribou, seals, and whales. North Slope residents obtain over half their calories from subsistence resources. Here’s where Lower 48 environmentalists should better understand Alaska: North Slope residents rely on skiffs powered by outboard motors, snowmachines, guns, and other equipment for subsistence that can only be purchased with money. So residents need jobs for money, and North Slope residents have village corporations and a regional corporation that provide such jobs, primarily through contracting for resource development projects like Willow.   

In Alaska, climate change is a daily reality that affects First People and North Slope residents more acutely than anywhere else. We desperately need national and international policies that dramatically ramp down greenhouse gas pollution, and we need economic development so Alaskans can survive, harvest subsistence resources, and maintain our infrastructure in the midst of a climate crisis.   

Is there a conflict in the president approving Willow while pursuing laudable and ambitious climate goals? No. Neither Alaskans nor Americans control global oil demand, nor global oil prices, and a project like Willow will have zero net impact on global emissions. If the 80,000 barrels per day didn’t come from Willow, they’d come from existing oil fields whether those are fracked wells in Texas or conventional oil from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, or any number of other producers. The president has taken the right approach in supporting local energy production — which, by the way, is essential for national security — while moving as aggressively as possible to support both renewable energy generation and the critical step of driving green hydrogen to be economic in competing with liquid fossil fuels. 

Most environmentalists want to support Indigenous rights, but many aren’t familiar with Alaska’s Tribal governments, corporations, or history. They do not understand that opposition to Willow represents neo-colonialism. I hope these individuals continue to learn about our state and the complex realities of our people and institutions. Environmentalists should also understand that reflexive, categorical opposition to U.S.-based energy production in an era of Chinese and Russian aggressive energy production is recklessly naïve and self-marginalizing.   

I’ve been an environmental activist all my life, and I could not be more concerned about the future my two daughters are inhabiting. I hope for their sake national environmental groups do a reality check about economics, geopolitics, and get behind a president who is doing everything in his power to keep our nation and earth intact — both today and long into the future. 

Zack Fields (D-Anchorage) is a member of the Alaska House of Representatives. 

Tags carbon emmissions Climate change Joe Biden Willow Project

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