Q&A: Opposing Alaska’s giant Willow oil project

Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Danielle Brigida/Flickr

ConocoPhillips is getting workers and equipment ready for a drilling project in Alaska that is poised to be the largest in the United States.

Known as Willow, the project is set to take place in the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre expanse of pristine land in Alaska’s North Slope.

The venture is expected to produce 600 million barrels of crude oil over 30 years. When that oil is burned, it will contribute 9.2 million metric tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere each year – equivalent to adding roughly two million cars to the road annually.

The Biden administration gave the project the green light in March. While state lawmakers and some residents of the North Slope support Willow, environmental groups and an Alaska Native organization were quick to file lawsuits to stop the project. They also requested construction be delayed while the lawsuits are pending.



Last week, a federal judge rejected this request, meaning the company can go ahead with gravel mining and road construction.

The Willow project is the latest battle in a longstanding effort to protect the Arctic from drilling. Before the controversy over Willow, the Trump administration auctioned off leases to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area east of the National Petroleum Reserve that serves as a calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd. Although Joe Biden has since blocked drilling leases in the refuge, current legislation requires another lease sale in 2024.

Meanwhile, the consequences of new oil and gas developments for climate have been made abundantly clear. Following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report in March, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for an end to new fossil fuel exploration.

“Humanity is on thin ice – and that ice is melting fast,” the Associated Press quoted Guterres as saying. “Our world needs climate action on all fronts – everything, everywhere, all at once.”



Given what’s at stake, Cabin Radio spoke to two people working to protect the Arctic from oil and gas interests: Lorraine Netro and Andy Moderow.

Lorraine Netro. Photo supplied by Genae Lako
Andy Moderow. Photo: Supplied

Netro is from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and was born and raised in Old Crow, Yukon. She has served as MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin and on many boards and committees, including the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, the Assembly of First Nations Women’s Council and the Gwich’in Steering Committee. She has been working to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since 1999.

Moderow is a senior director of policy at Alaska Wilderness League, a non-profit organization that works to protect Alaska’s lands and waters. The organization was one of six groups that filed a lawsuit challenging the decision to approve the Willow project. Moderow is based in Anchorage.

Interviews with Netro and Moderow were recorded separately on April 6, 2023. Transcripts have been edited for clarity and length.

How and why did you get involved in work to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Lorraine Netro: That’s a real colonial question (laughs). I’m a Vuntut Gwitchin woman and as women of our First Nations, communities in our nations, it’s our responsibility as mothers and grandmothers to take care of our families and to be able to make sure that all future generations of the Gwitchin people are blessed with the same kind of traditional lifestyle that we enjoy today.

Andy Moderow: Growing up in Alaska, I raised sled dogs and discovered wild expanses of the state, even running the 1,100-mile Iditarod sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome. I went to college thinking Alaska was endless and that there’s so much land, you could never harm it all with things like development. But when I went to the east coast of the US, I realized that at one point, the east coast was thought of like that – and now there are a lot of impacts and development from centuries prior. Ever since coming home, I’ve worked in policy or politics, trying to make sure we’re thinking long-term about the state of Alaska.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the movement to protect the refuge throughout your work?



Netro: The challenges that we faced over the last 40 years of advocating for protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been many. Within the United States, they played political football with the sacred place where the Porcupine caribou give birth to their young.

It’s a pretty scary journey because our way of life, our Gwitchin way of life, is always hanging in the balance of decision-makers in another country that know very little about who we are as Gwitchin, and why our lands and waters and animals are so sacred to us.

We’ve seen many changes within the political arena. We’ve seen many decision-makers make decisions that don’t take us, as Gwitchin people, into consideration. They have very little understanding of why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is so important to the Gwitchin people.

Moderow: The difficult part of conservation on things like the Arctic Refuge is you can only afford to lose once and then impacts can be created for decades. Fortunately, we have yet to see industrialization cross into the Arctic Refuge. And we’re working hard to keep that from happening. I think the thing that’s changed the most is, more and more, the US and the world are finally acting on climate. I think in the years to come, that’s only going to add to the urgency to protect this place – which should be protected for human rights reasons and for biodiversity.

There are very few places left in this world where un-industrialized lands exist, where land mammal migrations can go thousands of miles without crossing a road. Those alone are reasons to protect the Arctic Refuge. But the growing importance of climate, I think, means that hopefully this won’t be work that needs to keep happening in decades to come.

Do you have more faith that the area will be protected now compared to 20-odd years ago?

Netro: In 1988, when the Gwitchin people had their first gathering in Arctic Village, esteemed Elders of our Gwitchin Nation gave direction to the young people at that time to educate the world about why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is so important to the Gwitchin people. From 1988 to present time, again, it’s been quite a journey. There have been many changes. We made sure that our voice is always at the forefront. We work with our allies – the Alaska Wilderness League, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and people who are familiar with the political processes in the United States.

We’ve always had hope as Gwitchin people. Our Elders have always told us, from the time that this advocacy work began, to always have hope and do this work in a good way. I’ve come to build a really deep understanding of what our esteemed Elders meant by that. We’ve gone through some really contentious times. Some other times, when we didn’t win a vote in Washington, DC, in the Senate or in Congress, you can lose hope very easily. But we always had to hang on to that hope. Because how would you feel if something was snatched and taken away from you? And your way of life and the well-being of all future generations of your people were at stake? You know, these are questions that we always have in the back of our minds.



So yes, I have hope. I still have hope that one day we’re going to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for all time. We will have permanent protection for the sacred place where life begins.

How much of a threat do you think the Willow project poses? Although the project isn’t in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, do you think it could have implications for the area?

Netro: The Willow project, even though it’s a fair distance away, is a threat to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Anything that happens – any kind of decision, any kind of proposed development and otherwise – that happens in the Arctic, we make it our business to know what’s going on.

The way that the Willow project was handled, I don’t believe they listened to the First Nations peoples of those lands and didn’t take their land stewardship and way of being First Peoples in that traditional territory into consideration. That’s a real, serious threat to all First Nations people, when that kind of process is followed through without taking our voice into consideration.

Corporate entities and organizations are going to profit from the rights of the Indigenous people from that traditional territory. And when they gave the green light for the Willow project, it raised a question about the future of the Arctic Refuge: Are we next? Are we going to be facing this kind of threat and decision-making process from the government of the United States for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, without taking our inherent rights into consideration? The right to be Gwitchin, and the right to live in a cultural and traditional way, and our right to protect these lands for all future generations of our people.

Moderow: The Willow project is a big threat to climate because it’s just the first of many projects that ConocoPhillips sees in the region. It was very unfortunate that the Biden administration approved the project, given the climate impacts that are quite apparent, on top of impacts to local communities and biodiversity. So that’s the fear with Willow. There was litigation filed and there was a setback when the court didn’t halt construction for the remaining few weeks of this year’s construction season. But the court didn’t rule yet on the merits of the case, which we think are very strong. So we’re still very hopeful the court will see that the Biden administration rushed that decision when they make a ruling later, hopefully, this year.

Alaska is experiencing the effects of climate change more than other states in our nation. What we’re seeing in the state are impacts to fisheries and changes to migrations as a result of climate. So while the Willow project may not directly affect the Porcupine caribou herd and the landscapes of the Arctic Refuge, the carbon emissions would. It’s for that reason that these issues are tied together. The future of the Arctic and the globe are tied to decisions on whether to move forward with these massive fossil fuel projects.

What is your reaction to the news that ConocoPhillips can go ahead with construction? What do you think it means for the area and ongoing litigation?



Moderow: Our reaction has been via our attorneys, to file with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and an emergency appeal has been filed. The reason for the urgency is that gravel pit blasting could begin as soon as now.

With gravel pit blasting, you’re taking dynamite and you’re blowing out the landscape to be able to mine gravel to build a three-mile road. Roads in this region can’t be undone. The tundra is very sensitive, and it can pose impacts to local communities. Both the noise of development and the construction of the road could impact caribou migrations in the region.

It’s not the full development of the project. Of course, it doesn’t have the climate implications that exist for developing the oilfield. This isn’t the be-all, end-all battle that we’re hoping the courts step in on and give us a win on. But it’s an important first step that Conoco is trying to take this year, that they shouldn’t be able to while the court considers the case, in our opinion. So we are hoping the court steps in and halts that while the case is being considered.

The latest IPCC report makes it clear that new fossil fuel exploration shouldn’t happen if we want to limit future warming. At the same time, the Willow project was recently approved and there’s legislation that requires another lease sale in the Arctic Refuge in 2024. What do you make of that, and what do you think will happen at that sale?

Netro: I hope that the decision-makers will hear our voice and that we are able to provide them with very key traditional knowledge as to why they should not drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Those leases that might allow oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should not be there, should not be for sale. Our sacred lands are not for sale. Our Gwitchin people rely on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Porcupine caribou to sustain our way of life, our way of being Gwitchin. When we look at our little children and our little grandchildren running around, and make decisions for seven generations from now, there’s no room for oil and gas development in our sacred lands.

Moderow: The fortunate thing in the Arctic Refuge space is that industry is not that interested. We can’t take that for granted, because all it takes is one company to decide to drill for oil to destroy the landscape. But we’ve seen banks, we’ve seen insurance companies not show interest in leasing and supporting oil development. We’ve seen oil companies back out of leases that they had in the Arctic Refuge. BP Alaska left the state a few years ago.

These are all pointing towards an acceptance that there’s a change coming in our globe to act on things like the IPCC report and some of those findings. In the western Arctic we have ConocoPhillips, though, a very big company wanting to plow ahead with developments. To make things even worse, Conoco has identified three billion barrels, so five more Willows, in the region that they see as possible expansions in the future. These are just inconsistent with what the IPCC report says we must do if we’re going to address climate. I think the report coming out when it did is a positive step forward in outlining what needs to happen.

What do you hope to see by the time the next IPCC report comes out in 2030?



Netro: By 2030, I would like to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protected and preserved for all time, with no questions asked and no other threats of oil and gas development or other resource developments in, near or around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That would be my wish.

Moderow: President Biden has made great strides forward thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, which looks at taking care of some of the renewable energy solutions to climate. But by 2030, we had better be taking care of the fossil fuel side too, or else we won’t be solving the problem. So I hope by 2030, the IPCC report can note that there’s progress being made and that this progress will add up to a solution. We really don’t have much longer to get there.

This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.