All photography copyright 2023 Bruce Rettig

THE OVERY-USED DEFINITION of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Its origin, attributed to Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Mark Twain among others, appeared in a 1981 document published by Narcotics Anonymous. A story in Salon was titled, “‘The definition of insanity’ is the most overused cliché of all time,” and subtitled, “Attention all writers! You’re all writing the same thing over and over again. Now that’s insanity.”

Whatever its roots and overuse, there’s now an entirely new level for the definition thanks to the Biden administration officially approving the ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, a major oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope. The decision, a total contradiction to what the administration promised in its effort to curb greenhouse gases, hamstrings any serious attempt to slow global warming. An attempt to establish a positive spin on this situation is near impossible, but the administration continues to work hard in defending its position.

The New York Times (March 12, 2023)

The drilling project would take place inside the petroleum reserve, which is located about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The reserve, which has no roads, is the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.

The restrictions, however, are unlikely to offset concerns that the $8 billion Willow project, led by oil giant ConocoPhillips, will have the potential to produce more than 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.

A gas flare, or “flare stack,” burns in the Prudhoe Bay oilfield.

I’ve written a lot about oil reserves and drilling in the North Slope of Alaska. My book, REFRACTION: AN ARCTIC MEMOIR, recounts my experience as a laborer and merchant marine in Prudhoe Bay, working for a company that served the Prudhoe Bay oil field in the 1980s. Past “Changing Tides” blog posts focus on the challenges of oil drilling in the Arctic. “Another Step Closer to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” focused on British Petroleum’s (BP) Liberty offshore oilfield, located east of Deadhorse, in the Beaufort Sea. Thankfully, a federal appeals court overturned approval for the project in 2020. Another post, “Rockin’ in the Freeze World,” addressed an earthquake that hit the North Slope, exposing potential dangers that a quake could cause to the Trans-Alaska pipeline and oilfield infrastructure.

I honestly hoped for running out of new material, and then along came the Willow Project. Oil was discovered in the Willow prospect area west of Alpine, Alaska, in 2016, and in October 2020, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow development project. ConocoPhillips Alaska has signaled it is ready to move forward. The company says it wants to immediately begin gravel road construction. Ice roads will also be constructed, but because of global warming and increased thawing of tundra, artificial freezing of sections of land is also planned. Ironic, to say the least.

An Arctic Fox finds a path under the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

The latest threat to Alaska’s fragile arctic environment, and further ramping up of greenhouse gases, challenges rational decision-making. The ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project is located about sixty miles west of Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse Alaska—an area I know quite well. Challenges and threats caused by oil exploration and development in the arctic environment are many, especially today, more than forty years after I worked on the North Slope.

The 30-year project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day and is the largest proposed oil project on federal lands. Alaska’s economics are tied to the boom-and-bust cycles of oil, and the flow of oil through the trans-Alaska pipeline is a fraction of what it was at its height in the late 1980s. But today, Alaska is at the forefront of the climate breakdown, caused by burning fossil fuels. Local communities surrounded by oil and gas operations are already suffering poor air and water quality, health disparities and reduced food sources.

A short history of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Pipelines stretching across the tundra of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, and a drill rig in the background.

The people of Kaktovik subsist mainly on whaling and hunting caribou. Although the community receives funding through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the survival of their culture depends on hunting as a way of life. But in a short time, there has been a shift. Many of the villages rely on oil money to further their people and provide needed resources.

I often wondered if money channeled to the Iñupiat was a positive thing for them or if it would eventually destroy their culture entirely. The world’s energy reliance continues to be fueled by oil, and it was probably inevitable the path of exploitation swept the Iñupiat along with it.

— from Refraction: An Arctic Memoir

Alaska’s two Republican senators and the state’s sole congressional representative, a Democrat, had urged the administration to approve the project, which they say would boost the state’s economy. Conversely, former US vice-president Al Gore stated that projects of its kind are “recklessly irresponsible” and that allowing it would cause “climate chaos.”

Alaskan Native groups are divided about the project. The Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope and the Alaska Federation of Natives, have supported the Willow Project. Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, stated that it will make it “possible for our community to continue our traditions, while strengthening the economic foundation of our region for decades to come.”

The project is closest to the Native community of Nuiqsut, where ConocoPhillips also operates the Alpine Field. Environmental groups and tribes, including those in Nuiqsut, have countered that any jobs and money the project brings in the short term will be negated by the environmental devastation in the long run. The Nuiqsut mayor, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, is a prominent opponent, and has called the project a “climate disaster waiting to happen.” She said it will negatively affect the livelihoods and health of community members. The Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic are another group that is fighting strongly against the development.

Looking up, inside of a drill rig in the Arctic.

Eider duck on ice in Prudhoe Bay, surrounded by popcorn packaging.

The Biden administration is playing defense on this issue, and points to a 40% reduction in the original proposed size of the project (three pads instead of five). They are also touting limitations on new oil and gas leases in the Western Arctic and the Arctic Ocean, and proposing “a rule” that will recommend additional protections for more than 13 million acres. Expanded wind and solar projects have also been featured in an attempt to diffuse the spotlight on the Willow Project.

These efforts are all good, but they won’t offset the addition of 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year, an equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads. We’ve been here before with past oil field projects, and you know what they say about doing the same thing over and over . . .

 


To say no to the Willow Project, please consider signing the petition at Change.org.


To read more about the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, check out my book, Refraction: An Arctic Memoir, at: https://bit.ly/3tdZR0R

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