April 30th marks President Biden’s first 100 days in office, and it’s undeniable that a lot has changed since he took office. The Executive Orders he signed on his first day slowed or paused the previous administration’s focused march towards exploitation at all costs. Biden’s nomination of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who was confirmed on March 14, as well as other cabinet members who bring strong commitments to environmental justice, signal real departure from the Trump agenda and the extractive, colonial values it centered.
Still, a look back a bit further makes it equally clear that without true systemic change, the threats posed to northern Alaska will be repeated with the next political swing. As Arctic Program Coordinator Emily Sullivan and Han Gwich’in organizer Jody Potts wrote in an op-ed in December:
It’s clear that as we advocate for long-term protection, we should look beyond the next few decades and envision a time when protection no longer requires continuous political battle. In order to accomplish this, lawmakers need to proactively enact policies that redefine our nation’s relationship to public lands.
There are, as always, multiple timelines and tactics at play. Here’s a review of what these last few months have meant for northern Alaska, and what might happen next.
“In light of the alleged legal deficiencies”
Thanks to the tireless efforts of protectors and supporters, the new administration understood on Inauguration Day the urgency of undoing the damage of the last four years. Section 4 of the Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis, signed January 20, calls for a temporary moratorium on all leasing-related activities in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. It states that “The Secretary (of Interior) shall review the program and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.”
We still face some unknowns about how this order and review will intersect with ongoing lawsuits, and the issuance of nine leases the day before Biden’s inauguration. But we remain hopeful that under an administration that honors scientific integrity and recognizes the need to transition off fossil fuels, a new review process will demonstrate the absolute absurdity of extraction in the coastal plain.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in response to the executive order, “Mahsi’choo, President Biden. The Gwich’in Nation is grateful to the President for his commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life. We know there’s so much work ahead, and are thankful that the president will take early action to help protect these lands forever.”
We’ve continued to keep the pressure on the Biden administration to take steps toward permanent protection of the coastal plain, and the administration has demonstrated that they take environmental justice seriously. Still, our elected leaders need to keep hearing from us.
ACTION: Find out if your senators and representative supports this bill, and contact them to thank them, or to ask why not.
Willow project would cause “irreparable harm”
In the Western Arctic, a combination of court decisions and orders from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland have put construction of ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow Master Development Plan on hold, at least for now. In a
February decision about our lawsuit, filed by Trustees for Alaska and led by Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, “the court recognized in its decision that these industrial activities would cause ‘irreparable harm’ to the land, water, food interests, and ways of life of people in Nuiqsut.”
Secretary Haaland’s April 16 orders “Prioritize Department-Wide Climate Action, Revokes Orders That Are Out Of Alignment With Biden Administration Priorities,” which in practice meant undoing the previous administration’s efforts to legislate their way into unregulated extraction free-for-all in Alaska’s Western Arctic. With the Department’s attention on the fossil fuel industry’s undeniable contributions to climate change, it’s hard to imagine that they’d allow construction of this sprawling mess of roads, pipelines, and drill pads on federal lands that are already so dramatically impacted by industrial infrastructure.
In a March 8 op-ed in the Houston Chronicle (a (paywalled) paper serving the city where ConocoPhillips and other oil and gas companies are headquartered), Iñupiat organizer Nauri Toler wrote, “The village of Nuiqsut, with a population of about 400 of mostly Iñupiaq, is already heavily impacted by oil and gas extraction. You can see the oil and gas facilities just by looking out the window in a part of Alaska near the Arctic Ocean that is touted as ‘pristine’ or ‘untouched.’ The blasts that happen every day at 6 p.m. from gravel pit activity affect Nuiqsut. Houses have cracks in their walls from this, and the physical damage doesn’t compare to the mental impact it has on residents.”
ACTION: While we can’t predict the outcome of the ongoing litigation addressing the Willow project and the management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, we can continue to advocate for renewable energy solutions and a just transition off fossil fuels. We can uplift the voices of Alaskans speaking up about the impacts of fossil fuel extraction on health, food sovereignty, wildlife, and climate.
And we can keep building local solutions that make drilling for fossil fuels less necessary, despite what Alaska’s elected officials might say.
100 days and 50 years
We’re not only reflecting on these 100 days of the Biden administration, but also on the Northern Center’s 50th anniversary. In commemoration of this half century, several members and past employees have shared memories and collections of past newsletters and brochures. One stack of mementos from the early 1980s brought on a bit of deja vu as we read about caribou behavior around the pipeline, the political push for oil in the coastal plain, the still-lingering effort to dam the Susitna River, and opportunities to sustainably diversify Interior Alaska’s energy grid.
In some ways, it can be disheartening that so little seems to have changed, even as this year’s political situation is a vast improvement over last.
But on the other hand: there are no drill rigs in the Arctic Refuge. The Susitna Dam does not exist. Interior communities are taking initiative and solarizing homes and businesses. And while there are those who remain focused on their search for more oil, more people in Alaska and around the world are coming together in the recognition that the cost of extraction isn’t worth the benefits, and we can build something better.
It will take longer than 100 days or 50 years, but we’re well-positioned to move forward from here.