NUIQSUT, Alaska — On the fifth day of the gas leak, Bruce Nukapigak loaded 14 relatives into three cars and fled through a blizzard toward the nearest town of Deadhorse.
Nukapigak, a 37-year-old power-plant operator, took pride in the fact that his remote hometown at the top of the world helped supply the country’s energy. But he had lived through oil disasters before — his infant son was airlifted from the village during a blowout a decade earlier — and he knew a knife’s edge could separate routine work from catastrophe.
“I understand this country needs energy. And we provide it,” he said. “But all the bad stuff that comes with it — we’re left to fend for ourselves when it happens.”
The dilemma Nukapigak wrestled with as he sped over the tundra in March is now facing the Biden administration, in what could soon become one of the administration’s most significant environmental decisions. At a time of soaring gas prices and mounting climate emergencies, the administration is weighing a proposal by ConocoPhillips for the next major phase in Arctic oil exploration: a network of new drilling pads that would further encircle Nuiqsut with oil infrastructure.
The $6 billion endeavor, known as the Willow project, includes hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine, and a major new processing facility — all in the middle of pristine Arctic tundra and wetland, on the nation’s single largest block of public land.
The decision will directly test how the administration is weighing pressure to deepen America’s ability to produce oil — at a moment that high energy prices, in part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, represent a major political threat to Biden and economic threat to the country — against a desire to make progress curbing climate change and bolstering environmental protection.
Last year, a federal judge blocked construction permits for the project, approved during the final year of the Trump administration, because the government failed to assess how burning the oil pulled from the ground would warm the planet.
The Biden administration, which defended the Willow project in court, will soon complete a new environmental review. Conservation groups are warning that the impact from the project’s emissions — even if a scaled-down version is approved — could be larger than the Trump administration ever considered. A ConocoPhillips official last year told investors that the Willow infrastructure could ultimately help unlock 3 billion barrels of oil — far more than the 586 million barrels that the Bureau of Land Management used to evaluate its climate impact.
Willow, the company said in an accompanying slide presentation, will be “the next great Alaska hub.”
“This is the single biggest oil and gas proposal on federal lands. It’s just a massive carbon threat, a massive development project in an area that’s already being ravaged by climate change,” said Kristen Miller, conservation director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “It’s really sort of an existential crisis.”
But proponents of the project say if the administration is going to uphold any commitment to domestic energy production the project must proceed.
“You can only find so many more ways to delay a project that has gone through an extraordinary, extraordinary review,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in an interview. “You’ve got a company that has committed to the highest standards. They have worked every step of the way to meet the requirements, and this project should move forward and it should move forward now.”
But even top officials at the Kuukpik Corporation, which was created when 27 families settled Nuiqsut a half-a-century ago and has supported oil development here for decades, have serious reservations about the project’s scope.
In March, corporation president Joe Nukapigak, Bruce’s father, wrote to Stephanie Rice, the project manager for Willow at the Bureau of Land Management, saying they could support the project if it was “balanced and environmentally responsible.”
“But we continue to believe that the version of the Project that was approved in 2020 will cause unreasonable and avoidable impacts on subsistence resources that are vital to Nuiqsut and other communities on the North Slope,” he wrote.
The corporation’s concerns focus on issues such as the location of drill pads — particularly the northern sites near the ecologically sensitive Teshekpuk Lake, the largest Arctic lake, as well as disturbances from the roads connecting them. Willow, as proposed, would require at least 3 million one-way vehicle trips — about 270 a day for 30 years, according to the project’s August 2020 environmental impact statement.
“They need to minimize impacts for the caribou migration, that’s the main thing,” said George Sielak, 62, a corporation board member.
“We need less pollution,” he added. “We need cleaner air.”
A warming tundra
The residents of Nuiqsut already feel the extremes of climate change. The Alaskan Arctic has warmed at least three times faster than the rest of the country. Houses bend and crack on the warming permafrost. Caribou hunters notice new sinkholes when they traverse the tundra.
Whale meat used to be stored in underground cellars but many have melted. Now it’s kept in two industrial-sized freezers outside city hall.
The Willow project would bring fresh threats to the climate. Burning 586 million barrels of oil — the initial project estimate over the project’s three decade life span — is equivalent to 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the annual emissions from 66 coal plants, according to the Alaska Wilderness League.
These emissions would also eclipse reductions that Biden has called for in setting the goal to cut the nation’s greenhouse gases by more than 50 percent by 2030, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, that described Willow as a “carbon bomb.” Fossil fuel drilling and mining on public lands already account for nearly a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
ConocoPhillips officials dispute the notion that Willow undercuts Biden’s climate goals. Failing to build it, they say, would mean oil getting drilled elsewhere in the world, likely under more lax environmental rules. The project’s environmental impact statement — published five months before Trump left office — estimated that after foreign market substitutions, the net greenhouse gas emissions would be about 35 million metric tons.
“The marginal annual increase in emissions if Willow is built would be about the same as the greenhouse gas emissions from annual flights between New York and London,” said Chris Wrobel, supervisor of Willow’s environmental permitting and compliance for ConocoPhillips. “Relative to the renewable energy goals that the administration has, Willow is just a very small proportional factor in that.”
Environmentalists fear Willow will be one node in a larger web of Arctic drilling across the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A). More than half the area is open for oil leasing but only two drill sites — both run by ConocoPhillips — are currently producing on this reserve the size of West Virginia.
The Alpine processing facility, where the gas leak occurred, is located just east of the NPR-A. It was approved more than two decades ago with a production estimate of 430 million barrels of oil equivalent. Nick Olds, ConocoPhillips’s senior vice president of global operations, last year told investors that since then, cumulative production has been nearly 600 million barrels of oil, with another 600 million of future production identified.
“That means our current estimate of ultimate recovery could be almost three times greater than our estimated project approval,” he said, according to a transcript of the June 2021 event.
Critics expect Willow to follow the same pattern: approving the project will pave the way for future drilling sites, meaning far more oil, and emissions, than currently considered.
“When you add this all up, if the Biden administration allows the project to go forward, they’ll be signing off on something that’s far worse than what was envisioned by the Trump team,” said Layla Hughes, a senior attorney at Earthjustice.
A spokeswoman for the BLM in Alaska said the agency’s ongoing environmental review will rely on the “most up to date production estimate for the Willow reservoir” but wouldn’t specify that number. ConocoPhillips said any future drilling proposals will be subject to additional review and analysis under environmental laws.
‘A horrendous few weeks’
As a young man, Bruce Nukapigak had worked at the Alpine facility as an apprentice electrician and pipe fitter and felt familiar with the risks inherent in oil drilling. The decision by ConocoPhillips to relocate about 300 of its own employees on March 7, the fourth day of the gas leak, convinced him it might not be safe for his own family, either.
The leak was caused when a well component, known as a casing shoe, broke about a half mile below ground amid high-pressure during a drilling test, according to a ConocoPhillips investigation into the incident released last month at what was known as the CD1 pad. The company estimated that 7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas escaped until it was mostly contained on March 8.
“No gas was detected beyond the CD1 pad, and no plants, fish, animals, or people were harmed by the release,” Andrew Lundquist, a Conoco executive, wrote to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) on May 10.
But the incident panicked some in Nuiqsut, while others felt that fear was overblown.
Early in the leak, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut and a critic of the oil industry, went on the village radio to warn residents, particularly the elderly and those taking medication, to be ready in the event of an evacuation. From the fire station across the street, chief Andrew Oyagak drove the ice-covered streets at night and counted 19 houses that had no vehicles and might need assistance to leave. The village clinic listed 41 homes — about a third of the total — as a top priority for evacuation due to chronic health problems or other vulnerabilities.
In those first days, both the fire station and the clinic received calls from people complaining of headaches and breathing problems they attributed to exposure to gas.
“It was a horrendous few weeks to go through in our village,” Ahtuangaruak said.
Nukapigak’s decision to leave cost him his job at the power plant. His employer, the North Slope Borough, said that Nukapigak was on a six-month probationary period as a new employee and he didn’t show up to work. It also cost him most of his savings to house his family for three weeks in Fairbanks.
But he couldn’t forget his one-year-old son Darion’s labored breathing after the brown cloud rolled into the village from the 2012 Repsol blowout of an oil well. Or the accident he witnessed at Alpine several years earlier when he was working near a gas flare pit, when flames erupted and crew members sprinted away in terror.
“The ground started shaking and the welder I was with, the look on his face, I still can see it to this day,” he recalled. “If that place goes out, that will wipe out my village. Anything at Alpine, it will wipe out my village.”
Crucial to the economy
ConocoPhillips is Alaska’s largest crude oil producer and is leading the push westward across the reserve.
On a recent tour of their North Slope facilities, company officials showed a reporter the Greater Mooses Tooth 2, a drilling pad surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of snow and ice. It was the westernmost oil site on Alaska’s North Slope. Beyond it was the bulk of NPR-A, 23 million acres of wilderness that in summer is a verdant Swiss cheese of lakes and rivers and wetlands overseen by the Interior Department.
“This is the end of the road,” said Lisa Pekich, ConocoPhillips’s director of village outreach. “For now.”
To the west, if the company prevails, would be Willow.
The company, and the oil industry, remain crucial to the state’s fortunes. Soaring oil prices have led to a projected budget surplus and a dividend for all state residents of more than $3,000 per year. But oil production on the North Slope has steadily declined since its peak in the 1980s as oil fields have been used up. About half a million barrels of oil per day now flows through the trans-Alaska Pipeline, about a quarter of what it once moved.
Willow is how state leaders hope to reverse that decline.
“The reality is that oil and gas production is necessary, now and in the future, even as a transition to lower-emission energy sources occurs over time,” the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in February, less than a month before he died, urging her to ignore Democrats’ calls to freeze the project.
“P.S. Do what is right,” he scrawled at the bottom of his letter.
In other parts of Alaska, the Biden administration has been an obstacle to drilling. Last year, in a victory for environmentalists, the administration suspended Trump-era oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — which spans nearly 20 million acres east of the NPR-A — and major oil companies abandoned plans there. In May, the administration also canceled lease sales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
Haaland herself, before she became Interior secretary, signed onto a letter to her predecessor David Bernhardt urging him to suspend Willow. She and other lawmakers called it “a continuation of efforts by the Trump administration to advance its aggressive oil and gas development agenda, ignoring the public health, environmental, subsistence, and climate impacts these projects will have.”
But with record gas prices, and disruptions in supply from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden has also urged the oil industry to pump more crude, a message at odds with his climate goals.
Biden officials say at least some version of the Willow project is likely to proceed.
“The ConocoPhillips leases purchased in 1999 reflect valid and existing rights,” said a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “The mandate from the court was to go back and update the environmental review and that is what the department did.”
ConocoPhillips officials say their work on the North Slope is done to exacting environmental standards. Pipelines that traverse the tundra are elevated to at least seven feet so migrating caribou can pass beneath them. The gravel roads that link oil facilities are built with ramps to accommodate residents hunting with snowmobiles.
“The people that work here are so proud of this environment,” said Jim Brodie, the company’s Willow project manager, during a recent tour of the area. “They’re proud of the wildlife and proud of how clean we keep our operations.”
Supporters of the oil industry note that Nuiqsut is wealthier and more developed than other Native Alaskan villages. It’s laid out on a neat grid of wood-framed houses, some of them decorated with moose antlers. Subsidized natural gas from Alpine heats the homes.
The mayor of the North Slope Borough, which encompasses Nuiqsut, described the benefits of resource development as “apparent and abundant.”
“We have better schools, hospitals, emergency services, roads, and a much longer life expectancy while still being able to live a subsistence lifestyle and provide for our families,” Mayor Harry Brower Jr. said in a statement. “We see continued use of our lands as an important matter of self-determination for our local communities.”
ConocoPhillips also noted that half of all federal royalties from Willow — an estimated $2.6 billion with oil at $60 a barrel — will go into a state fund aimed at helping communities on the North Slope.
“These are, we believe, some of the most environmentally and socially responsible barrels that can be developed, that bolster communities on the North Slope, the state of Alaska, and U.S. energy security,” said Connor Dunn, Willow asset manager. “Those are the first barrels that should be developed.”
Even its critics in Alaska acknowledge the chances of stopping Willow are slim. The project may get smaller: The five drill sites originally proposed could drop to four or three, according to local officials and others briefed on the changes. But there is more public support for drilling in the petroleum reserve than in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Opponents hope that the bureau might approve a version of the project that’s too costly for ConocoPhillips to pursue.
“My hope is that Willow dies a death by a thousand cuts,” said Bridget Psarianos, a staff attorney at Trustees for Alaska which represented plaintiffs suing over Willow. “The oil industry is not going to be up here forever. It’s a dying industry. There’s no two ways about it.”
Anxiety in a time of change
On the first day of the spring festival — with cars still buried under snow — Nuiqsut held a goose-calling contest at city hall. A few dozen people showed up to hear who could best imitate the warble of the goose, called nigliq.
The contestants, though, were few. Many age categories passed without anyone rising to attempt a call. The mood in the room seemed subdued.
As oil development expands across the tundra, money and modernization brings subtle changes, eroding the traditions formed around living off the land, said Peter Tagarook, 39, the cultural coordinator for the village.
“Less and less people are going to our community feasts, the games we have,” he said. “The people here changed. We no longer get together like we used to.” He blamed the community’s dependence on oil royalties. Willow, to him, was just “more of our leaders leasing out our land.”
The original settlers of Nuiqsut lived in a cluster of white tents on a bluff overlooking the Nigliq channel. Over the years, they witnessed the growing network of gravel roads and drill pads. Along with sturdy homes and oil royalties, the decades also brought more days with yellow-green haze on the horizon, they said.
“Everything has changed,” said Robert Nukapigak, 64, a village elder and one of the original settlers. “Today we’re breathing so much of that carbon pollution in our area because the oil companies; constantly they’re burning fuel.”
ConocoPhillips has been monitoring air quality in Nuiqsut since 1999, the same year it bought its first leases intended for the Willow project. Company officials say the air quality meets all national standards and is better than Anchorage. They deny any connection between their work and the common respiratory ailments in village, such as asthma, COPD, and chronic bronchitis. The project’s environmental impact statement cited a 2012 study saying that children in Nuiqsut reported a higher percentage of breathing problems (8 percent) than in the broader North Slope Borough (5 percent).
Many people smoke in Nuiqsut. Trucks idle outside of many homes, spewing fumes as they slowly warm up in subzero temperatures. Even so, some longtime residents remain convinced that the oil business amounts to a kind of poison they can’t escape.
Jimmy Oyagak, 45, a whaling captain, is considering leaving Nuiqsut because of the oil business. The air quality in the winter is becoming too hard on his asthmatic son.
He had put a lot into Nuiqsut, serving in the past as vice mayor, fire chief, city councilman, on the village panel of caribou experts, and as leader of the native dance group. Then he left politics.
“I got tired of fighting and fighting and fighting with the oil industry,” he said. “There’s no stopping it. That’s how we start to feel.”