WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
Photograph by Kiliii Yüyan
The Willow project proposal would expand oil infrastructure on Alaska’s North Slope. The Frontline talks to an Iñupiaq leader who shares their public health concerns.
Siqiniq Maupin, an Iñupiaq person born in Alaska’s North Slope city of Utqiagvik but raised in Fairbanks, has known too many people whose lives were cut short by cancer or suicide. Across the state, Alaska Natives face higher cancer mortality rates than their white peers. Young Alaska Native men between 15 and 24 also face the highest suicide rate among any group in the U.S.
“I was told that it’s not if I get cancer, it’s when,” Maupin said.
This is the reality that has fueled Maupin’s activism as executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, an organization made up of Iñupiat peoples dedicated to keeping their communities and environments healthy.
The latest threat to these communities is the Willow project, a massive oil proposal by ConocoPhillips that would extract some 180,000 barrels of oil a day from the already fragile Alaskan ecosystem. It’s presently the largest oil proposal under federal consideration. President Joe Biden and his administration are set to make their decision on the project as soon as March 6, so Alaskan advocates hit the streets of Washington, D.C., Friday to ensure their voices ring loud and clear. If the project is approved and built, it would result in 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.
“It’s emotional,” Maupin said. “For a lot of us, climate change gives us anxiety.”
Willow would be developed in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a 23-million-acre fossil fuel cesspool where over 480,000 barrels of oil per day are already extracted. But the region is more than its fossil fuel reserves and industry presence. It’s a critical habitat for walruses and caribou. It’s also the home of various Iñupiat communities—like the village of Nuiqsut, where some 500 people live, including Maupin’s mother.
Since about 2019, Maupin has been vocal against the Willow project. The proposed area would sit about 36 miles away from the remote Native village. Maupin didn’t grow up there, but they take their two children every summer so that they can connect with their culture, traditions, and lands. The community’s economy relies on fishing, whaling, and subsistence hunting. These make up the foods they eat—their medicine.
“If we lose that land, it’s devastating to our culture,” Maupin said. “I’m very afraid that my kids are going to grow up not just in a world that doesn’t have their traditional medicine that we’ve been eating for thousands and thousands of years, but that they won’t even have a safe place to be that isn’t overheating.”
“I expect the unexpected and that our land will be completely unpredictable and, in many ways, unknown to us because it’s changing so fast that our animals and our people cannot adapt.”
After all, climate change is hitting this region first and worst: the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the world over the past 40 years. Roads are being swallowed by water. Iñupiat subsistence hunters are falling through the ice, thinner than they’ve ever known it to be. The animals are behaving strangely, too: from starving polar bears wandering into towns to walruses unable to find ice gathering on beaches, instead.
“I expect the unexpected and that our land will be completely unpredictable and, in many ways, unknown to us because it’s changing so fast that our animals and our people cannot adapt,” Maupin said.
At the root of the climate crisis sits the fossil fuel industry. It’s known for decades that its products would heat up the planet—and yet, it’s doubling down on expansion and growth. Activists worry that the approval of the Willow project would encourage even more oil and gas expansion throughout the National Petroleum Reserve at a time when scientists are urging leaders to end the use of dirty energy sources.
Nuiqsut is already surrounded by oil and gas infrastructure: rigs, pipelines, and stations. As a result, air pollution has become a concern for locals. Some pollutants they have been exposed to over the years include sulfur dioxides, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, benzene, and even formaldehyde, according to a 2019 report by Alaska Community Action on Toxics, an environmental justice nonprofit advocating for clean air and water in Alaska. All of these pollutants can irritate the respiratory system; some can cause cancer.
“We know rates of respiratory illnesses have increased over recent years because of these extractive industries moving in,” said Adam Ortega, the communications coordinator for Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “[The Willow project] would exacerbate climate change in an already super-sensitive and ever-changing ecosystem that is the Arctic.”
Now, the Willow project adds yet another layer to an already precarious situation. Life is already hard in the arctic tundra, especially for Iñupiat communities where roads and hospitals are scarce. In 2012, a gas well run by energy company Repsol that was not far from the community blew out. During the event, Maupin said two children from Nuiqsut were evacuated. After, they continued to face breathing problems.
“I feel like we’re being asked to choose between these two things: our traditional lands and our health: physical, spiritual, and mental.”
“I feel like we’re being asked to choose between these two things: our traditional lands and our health: physical, spiritual, and mental,” they said.
There’s no talking about health without addressing mental health, which is a crisis among the nation’s Indigenous communities. The distress caused by the loss of ancestral and traditional lands even has its own term: solastalgia. It’s the opposite of nostalgia, the longing many feel for old memories. With solastalgia, that longing evolves into something more: stress and mental illness. And the feelings aren’t about old memories; they’re about home and the connections specific communities have to these places impacted by environmental changes.
Despite the severity of what these communities face, not all Alaska Natives oppose the Willow project. A quick Google search of “Willow project Alaska Natives” reveals that enough voices are speaking out in support of the project. And Maupin understands why. Iñupiat communities need economic investments. Sometimes, oil and gas tax royalties are the only way to bring roads and running water to remote villages. Maupin and their allies, however, believe there’s a different way.
“Our organization doesn’t speak for all Iñupiat people—not even the majority of Iñupiat people,” Maupin said. “We are a small but strong group that believes in a just transition.”
What Maupin’s organization does is educate and build awareness across Iñupiat communities. That way, they can make informed decisions—decisions they won’t later regret. Willow is projected to bring 2,500 construction jobs and some 300 permanent jobs. Up to $17 billion in revenue is predicted, too—but at what cost?
Future generations left disconnected from their heritage won’t care about economic wealth if they have no lands to call home. Material goods mean nothing on an unlivable terrain melted by heat or flooded by rising waters. If the Biden administration approves the Willow project, that is what it promises. There’s no climate or environmental justice on a burning planet—a planet without the Arctic.