You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Follow the $

Are Opponents of Alaska’s Willow Drilling Project Guilty of “Eco-Colonialism”?

Republican Senator Dan Sullivan says so. But not all groups close to the drilling sites support the project, which Biden approved on Monday.

Demonstrators hold up a yellow banner reading "Stop the Willow Oil Project."
Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Demonstrators outside the White House on December 2 in Washington, D.C.

On Monday, the Biden administration officially announced it will approve the largest oil drilling operation proposed for federal lands in decades: the Willow project in Alaska’s North Slope. While the administration opted to approve a reduced plan of three well pads, rather than ConocoPhillips’s original five, three pads could amount to up to 199 total wells, and the well pad reduction will only reduce the project’s estimated emissions by around 8 percent. Though pitched as a response to today’s energy security needs, the project is not slated to begin production until 2029. 

At its peak, the Willow project is expected to produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day and 600 billion barrels of oil total over its projected 30-year lifespan, all while releasing emissions equivalent to those of a third of the U.S. fleet of coal-fired power plants. The Arctic environment around it, meanwhile, has warmed four times as fast as the rest of the planet since 1979. Looking to soften the blow, the administration separately announced it will declare 13 million acres within Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve off limits to new drilling. 

The Willow project’s supporters have sought to frame opposition to the plan as coming solely from out-of-touch radicals. “The president and his team talk often about racial justice, racial equity, environmental justice—the vast majority of the Native people in Alaska support this project,” Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan said last week at a major oil and gas conference in Houston, CERAWeek. “And what they’re starting to say is, these lower-48 environmental groups who are now doing this big campaign against Willow are undertaking really the second wave of colonialism. This is from our Native leaders: eco-colonialism.” Asked afterward to clarify which Indigenous communities he was referring to, Sullivan said, “All of them.” 

The Willow project has indeed enjoyed support from many Indigenous governments and groups in Alaska. Half of lease revenues from sales in the Arctic go to a special grant program that disperses money to North Slope communities, which are majority Indigenous, “to help mitigate significantly adverse impacts related to oil and gas development.” The Willow project approval was welcomed by the North Slope Borough that encompasses the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska; elected leaders in the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, or ICAS; as well as the for-profit Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which was formed by federal statute to allow Iñupiat shareholders to oversee and invest revenue from the state’s land and natural resources. In a joint statement on Monday, the Alaska Federation of Natives—the largest statewide Native organization—supported Willow and said that the project “bolsters U.S. energy security at an important time when we are trying to raise the urgency of investing in critical needs arising because of Russia’s aggression.”

Local support for the Willow project is hardly unanimous, though. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak—mayor of the 525-person city closest to the Willow project, Nuiqsut—has been an outspoken critic. “Our people feed their families with traditional subsistence activities like fishing and hunting caribou, moose, birds, and more,” she wrote last November. “The Willow project’s massive infrastructure would bulldoze straight through these crucial habitats, redirecting the animals’ 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.”

The group Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic condemned the Biden administration’s approval of the project, calling it “a great disappointment” that “comes after years of grassroots, Iñupiaq-led opposition,” and represents “the continued prioritization of profit over climate and people.” The Indigenous Environmental Network has called the project “the next U.S. climate bomb,” adding that Biden’s decision constitutes “not only a complete betrayal of his commitments to confront the climate crisis but … also an open violation of Indigenous rights. It doesn’t matter what other ‘Arctic Protections’ this administration puts in place, the ecological & spiritual damage wrought by this project cannot be offset nor supplanted.” 

After the administration’s decision was announced this week, Sullivan hauled out the same talking point he had used earlier and commended Alaska Natives in the North Slope for persevering, “even as far-left, Lower 48, eco-colonialist NGOs continued their efforts to silence Alaska Native voices.” ConocoPhillips is one of Sullivan’s top donors. He has received nearly $50,000 from the company’s PAC and its employees—most donating considerable sums—since his inaugural 2014 Senate campaign. Sullivan’s top donor overall is the billionaire-funded conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth. 

ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance has used similar talking points. Approving the Willow project, he said Monday that it “fits within the Biden administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice.” Praising the White House’s decision, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called Willow “meticulously planned, socially just, and environmentally sound.” ConocoPhillips is Murkowski’s top corporate campaign donor, having furnished her campaigns with more than $140,000 since 2003.