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Climate & Indigenous Activists Decry Biden’s Approval of Willow Oil Drilling Project in Arctic

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The Biden administration has approved a massive oil and gas development in Alaska known as the Willow project, despite widespread opposition from environmental and conservation groups that argue Willow will amount to a carbon bomb. The administration also announced Sunday it will ban future oil and gas leasing for 3 million acres of federal waters in the Arctic Ocean and will limit drilling in a further 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska’s North Slope. For more, we speak with Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, who says Willow would undermine Biden’s larger climate goals. “This project would emit so much carbon, it would actually double the amount that Biden had promised he would reduce,” they say.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Multiple news organizations are reporting the Biden administration is preparing to formally approve a massive oil and gas development in northern Alaska known as the Willow project. Approval of the $8 billion ConocoPhillips development is expected to be announced today, greenlighting the drilling of some 600 million barrels of crude oil. Climate activists and many Indigenous groups had urged Biden to reject the project, warning it will create a carbon bomb.

In advance of approving the Willow project, the Biden administration also announced on Sunday steps to reduce oil drilling in other parts of the Arctic. This includes barring future oil and gas leasing for 3 million acres of federal waters in the Arctic Ocean and limiting drilling in a further 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska’s North Slope. Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity criticized the Biden plan, saying, quote, “Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn’t make sense, and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project,” they said.

We go now to North Pole, Alaska, where we’re joined by Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic.

It’s great to have you back. Thanks so much for joining us, Siqiñiq. Can you talk about what you understand is being announced today?

SIDIÑIQ MAUPIN: Well, recently, on Friday afternoon, the Bloomberg report came out saying that there was speculation that the Biden administration will approve a three-pad plan, instead of the five-pad original plan. And now we’re hearing that he will make his decision Monday at about 9 a.m., but we’re not for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: While campaigning in 2020, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden said, quote, “No more drilling on federal lands, period.” This is candidate Biden responding to a question about his position on drilling in the Arctic.

JOE BIDEN: But I think I’m the only one — maybe not the only one, only one running — who’s been up in the Arctic Circle. I’ve been — remember the great oil spill that occurred? And I watched when I went up there, and I went up in a helicopter up on the North Slope and saw what was going on and saw what was happening as the glaciers began to melt and how the caribou and everyone — I mean, there’s a lot going on up there. And it’s a real gigantic problem. And by the way, no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period. But the Arctic Circle is a disaster to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was candidate Biden. And again, the little part we missed at the beginning of what the candidate said was “I’m completely, totally opposed to drilling in the Arctic.” Siqiñiq Maupin, describe this project. What is the Willow project and what you understand President Biden is announcing today?

SIDIÑIQ MAUPIN: Well, this is the biggest oil and gas leasing project that’s on public lands right now. It is a massive project that would be happening in the North Slope. Closest community would be Nuiqsut. And this would completely encircle the community in oil and gas, which already has Prudhoe Bay, Alpine. And this is just the start of the project, because this could greenlight for further exploration, further development. And this project would emit so much carbon, it would actually double the amount that Biden had promised that he would reduce. And so, all of his plans to reduce the CO2 being released would be nullified by this project and then putting back double what he said he was going to reduce.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about why you have invested so much time and energy into protesting this, and the two parts of the plan that’s being announced today?

SIDIÑIQ MAUPIN: Yes, we — I want to say, personally, I’ve been trying to fight this project for about four years. And on a more personal level, my mother lives in Nuiqsut. My family is from Nuiqsut. And although I wasn’t raised there, I have a deep connection and love for the community.

And in 2018, I was invited to go to an air quality monitoring system planning session. And currently, ConocoPhillips owns the only air quality monitoring system in place in Nuiqsut, and they also own most of the research that is quoted for the safety of this project to go forward. So, we went over the top 10 pollutants that are put out by ConocoPhillips, that’s required to be put to the EPA, and what the possible impact is from being exposed to those pollutants, like cancer, respiratory illness and other things, even changing the sex in the womb a child from male to female. And in that session, there was community members, a youth council, and a lot of us realized that we had seen these occurrences in our family. We had seen increase in cancer, respiratory illnesses.

And in 2012, there was a blowout, a Repsol blowout, and that caused one child to be medevaced from the village, another one to have permanent health problems with their respiratory system, and many people have complained.

Recently, there was a gas leak near Nuiqsut in the Alpine field, and they didn’t evacuate the village. They said that they were fine. But many people self-evacuated because children were complaining of nausea, headaches and not feeling well. And so, currently, there is no plan put into place to help evacuate or keep the community of Nuiqsut safe.

And as I learned more about this project and its impacts, not just to the community and the public health, but the climate impacts were significant. The Arctic is warming at four times the rate than the rest of the world. And while many people speculate climate change, we’re living it. We’re seeing in the Yukon River, they haven’t been able to fish for many years, subsistence fishing. We are seeing caribou that are showing signs of starvation. We’re seeing fish pop up with mold. And this project is going to accelerate those issues and create food insecurity and many, many issues, that is not just going to affect Nuiqsut or the eight communities in the North Slope, but the entire Arctic itself. And then, of course, globally, it’s going to affect people for climate change.

And so, this project, we’re concerned about for those reasons, but we also want to transition away from oil and gas, and this has locked us into oil and gas for the next 30 years. And we wouldn’t actually see any of the benefits economically for 10 years. This would be something that — you know, a catastrophe for Biden, who had promised that he would transition us into clean energy. And what is also concerning is that, systematically, we’ve seen that small, rural places like this, time and time again — coal, gold mining — have had — been in an economic hostage situation, where they’re told that the only way that they can get basic necessities, like running water, plumbing and such, is to sacrifice their health, their land, their food security, and so many more consequences from this project.

AMY GOODMAN: Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, longtime environmentalist, told The Guardian, “The proposed expansion of oil and gas drilling in Alaska is recklessly irresponsible. The pollution it would generate will not only put Alaska native and other local communities at risk, it is incompatible with the ambition we need to achieve a net zero future. We don’t need to prop up the fossil fuel industry with new, multi-year projects that are a recipe for climate chaos. Instead, we must end the expansion of oil, gas and coal and embrace the abundant climate solutions at our fingertips,” he said.

Now, according to The New York Times, “Willow would be the largest new oil development in the United States, expected to pump out 600 million barrels of crude over 30 years. Burning all that oil could release nearly 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. On an annual basis, that would translate into 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year. The United States, the second biggest polluter on the planet after China, emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually,” The New York Times wrote.

So, yes, environmental activists across the political spectrum are calling this a carbon bomb. Siqiñiq, talk about ConocoPhillips and who pushed this project forward.

SIDIÑIQ MAUPIN: ConocoPhillips has a huge hand in everything that happens in Alaska, politically, locally, in the public education. And recently, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut, put out a letter with other councilmembers and the president of Native Village of Nuiqsut, as well, stating that this project would be detrimental to the people there, but it would also be a huge climate mistake. And as we’ve seen, we can’t have a project go forward like this and meet the global goal to reduce carbon emissions.

And so, we’re looking at this project and President Biden, and we understand the political ties that he has with Murkowski, who is someone that crosses party lines, that has — that is a Republican, that really wants this project to go forward. And so, we believe that he’s not making logical choices or choices that are best for his constituents and people, but he’s making a choice based off of pressure from political leaders, our congressmen, that are not representing Alaska well, because, as you’ve stated, there has been so many things happening in the Arctic that have been reckless. And this project would only further exacerbate those issues, like the 12 villages that need to be relocated immediately in Alaska due to climate change, erosion. And there is no federal funding for this. So, for President Biden to greenlight this project, he would really be going back on so many of his campaign promises, but also putting our world at risk of having less of a chance to mitigate the challenges we’re facing because of climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Siqiñiq Maupin, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, speaking to us from North Pole, Alaska.

Next up, senators grill the CEO of Norfolk Southern over the company’s toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Stay with us.

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