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Arctic Circle

As if the Whole Tundra were Moving

Huge herds of reindeer used to pass by the small village of Nuiqsut in Alaska.
Now the oil industry is moving in with the Willow Project.
Opponents fear massive consequences for people, nature and the climate.

By Inga Dreyer and David Schmidt

Sam Kunaknana ties a white piece of plastic to a branch. The marker will later help him find the spot where the motorboat is tied up below on the riverbank. Then he takes the rifle on his back, pushes aside the branches of a willow and looks for a path through the dense bushes. Four people follow him closely. The ground, criss-crossed with streams of water, gives way under their footsteps with a loud smacking sound. The buzzing of mosquitoes fills the air.

Suddenly the undergrowth thins out and a plain spreads out in front of the group: the treeless expanse of the tundra. On this Sunday, Kunaknana, his partner Rene Opie, two older relatives and 18-year-old Qapqan Patkotak have taken a boat across the wide river on a hunting trip to the north. Snow and ice prevail in northern Alaska for up to eight months, with temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. Now, in August, the sun is shining, it is 10 degrees and Qapqan walks in a T-shirt across the hills covered in moss and gnarled vegetation.

"There!" says Kunaknana, pointing to a lone reindeer grazing in a hollow in the landscape: "A caribou." He slowly raises his rifle. He looks through the scope and holds his breath.

Sam Kunaknana belongs to the indigenous Iñupiat ethnic group. Nuiqsut, the small village on the North Slope where he lives, suddenly came to prominence around a year ago. In March 2023, the Biden administration approved the Willow project, only about 50 kilometers from Nuiqsut. The oil company ConocoPhillips received the license for the project during the Trump era. In addition to three drilling fields, an airfield, bridges, and roads will be built there on four million hectares.

International media reported on the project and the controversy it has caused in the USA. President Biden promised there would be no new drilling on public land during the last election campaign. But now new oil drilling platforms are being built again in the middle of the Arctic tundra. Many of his voters accuse Biden of breaking his word.

According to an official government estimate, Willow could produce up to 600 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years. Burning all of it would equal around 239 million tons of CO2 emissions. Willow's supporters want to revitalize Alaska's oil industry. The project’s opponents fear for the land, water, and wildlife that the Iñupiat depend on.

Sam Kunaknana rejects the Willow project - but not all the inhabitants of Nuiqsut think like him. The small village is divided. The big debate about the future of oil is happening there, too.

As one of eight Iñupiat communities, Nuiqsut lies not far from the Beaufort Sea. It’s an island of humanity in a sparsely populated landscape, which has been known as the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska since 1923. Like many Alaskan communities, Nuiqsut is not connected to a road network and can only be reached by boat or small plane - and via temporary ice roads in winter. Polar bears trudge through the snow here. In summer, the tundra is an important resting and nesting place for migratory birds. The surrounding seas are home to sea lions, seals, and whales.

I grew up hunting and fishing. I was depressed and felt lost. As if I had lost my identity.

Since the late 1970s, the oil industry has been moving ever closer to Nuiqsut. From the village, you can see the outline of an oil well protruding from the flat landscape. Pipelines and thousands of wells lie between the village and the Prudhoe Bay oil industry base some 500 kilometers away. The oil is then transported to Valdez in the south of the country via the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Posters, calendars, and even children's books in Alaska show pride in the 1,300-kilometer-long oil pipeline, which cuts vertically through the vast countryside with its tundra, mountains, and forests.

"Too big," says Kunaknana and puts the rifle down again, while the caribou keeps its head lowered and scans the ground for food. The village elders have told the hunter what they need: "A small animal. The meat tastes better." That has always been his role in the village: to provide for others who are too old to hunt themselves, says his partner Rene Opie. The 56-year-old smiles and says: "I'm getting older too." He swings the rifle onto his back.

Sam Kunaknana is a friendly, soft-spoken man who speaks firmly when it comes to climate and environmental protection. He looks back on a life as a hunter-gatherer, but also as an important voice in the community.

As a member of the tribal council and during his time as mayor, Kunaknana has repeatedly warned about the impact of the oil industry on the environment. But now he no longer holds any office. He and Rene Opie have also been unable to find work for two years. Kunaknana puts this down to his critical attitude towards the Willow Project. "I don't think many people understand what's really going on here," he says. "If nothing happens, we will lose our culture."

Qapqan Patkotak has discovered cloudberries on a hill. The sweet yellow fruits stick to her fingers. The 18-year-old has traditional Iñupiat tattoos on her face. The willow branches next to her eyes stand for resilience. This is her first time on a hunting trip. She would like to do something like this much more often, learn more about traditional hunting - and live more like her ancestors once did, she says.

The lives of the Iñupiat in the North Slope have depended on hunting for thousands of years, the elders say. Sam Kunaknana, however, fears that oil extraction is endangering the community's livelihood. He is calling for better research into the impact of the oil industry on the environment. Every spring, caribou pass close by Nuiqsut on their way to the mating grounds in the north. But since the first oil wells were drilled, there have been fewer and fewer of them, says Sam.

"When younger people see 500 caribou today, they think that's a lot. But there used to be tens of thousands. It was as if the whole tundra was moving".

Kunaknana fears that the Willow project and the associated construction work will also have an impact on the herds' routes in the future. If the animals started migrating around the region, the Iñupiat would lose an important source of food - and a central cultural asset.

Kunaknana shows a photo of sick, deformed fish on his cell phone and says that he pulls such specimens out of the water regularly. Reports of the phenomenon have been increasing since the turn of the millennium. Is it dangerous to eat the fish? One study concludes that the fish are unsightly but edible. Kunaknana is not convinced: "Perhaps I have been feeding my family sick fish," he says. He did not go fishing for a year out of fear. "But that took something away from me. I grew up hunting and fishing. I was depressed and felt lost. As if I had lost my identity."

"Akłaq!" Rene Opie calls out in Iñupiaq, the language of the Iñupiat. A large brown bear runs straight towards the group. You can see it from a distance in the flat tundra. "Get the rifle ready," Opie calls out, then once again, emphatically: "Get the rifle ready!" The brown bear quickly approaches. But Sam Kunaknana remains calm. Twenty meters away, the large animal slows down and stops. Only now does Kunaknana point the rifle at it for safety. But as quickly as he came, the bear is gone again. "Wow," says Qapqan Patkotak. "I've never been this close to an Akłaq before."

"Bears don't scare us Eskimos, but if we see a bumblebee, we run away screaming," says Sam Kunaknana after the encounter and laughs. Together with musk oxen and moose, grizzlies are the largest land animals in Alaska. "Basically, we and the animals are the same," says Qapqan Patkotak. "We have to respect them, just like our ancestors did." This is another reason why Patkotak wants the oil to stay in the ground. "The companies are only interested in their profits. I wish they would just disappear. But few people think like me."

In fact, resistance to oil production in Alaska is growing. Attorney Bridget Psarianos from the law firm Trustees for Alaska, which specializes in environmental issues, represents a coalition of indigenous and environmental associations that is trying to prevent the Willow project.

"Traffic, noise and pollution will have massive impacts on wildlife, air and water quality, soil and the people who live there," says Psarianos. "The approval of the project by agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was done in violation of environmental protection laws and subsistence practices." In the Arctic, the latter primarily included hunting and fishing and the gathering of plants and berries. "The significant greenhouse gas emissions from the Willow Project would also have a serious impact on the Arctic and the global climate," says the lawyer. The BLM did not wish to comment on the ongoing process when asked by the Südwestpresse. ConocoPhillips also declined to comment on a confrontation with the allegations in the lawsuit.

Willow is giving life to an already ailing industry, says Athan Manuel from the environmental association Sierra Club. The oil fields on the North Slope were already literally drying up due to dwindling reserves. Manuel is all the more annoyed that Willow was approved. "This is unacceptable and contradicts the Biden administration's climate goals, which must be achieved to slow down climate change." Alaska's state budget is supported by the oil business, he said. "As a petrostate, Alaska is completely dependent on an industry that is destroying the planet."

And that doesn't look set to change any time soon. A huge oil boom began for the USA under Donald Trump and is still continuing under Joe Biden. The economy has been reporting new production records for years. At the same time, heat records keep getting broken repeatedly. 2023 was the hottest year since records began. Global warming is largely due to the burning of fossil fuels. Historically, the USA has burned most of them.

Despite the climate and environmental concerns, Alaskans are largely behind Willow, says Manuel. The project could increase oil production in Alaska by more than a third. Politicians such as Senator Lisa Murkowski have long been campaigning for the project in Washington, pointing to jobs, money for state coffers and benefits for indigenous people such as improved infrastructure.

When asked about this on the street in Nuiqsut, many Iñupiat react in a friendly manner, but refuse to comment on the Willow Project. Not Myles, who asked to have his name changed. On this summer evening, he is pacing restlessly up and down in front of his house and muttering curses under his breath. He is looking for something under the stilts that support the small building above the spongy ground. On a rack next to his house hang caribou skins, which he uses as blankets. Myles has spent the last few nights in a cell at the local police station. Because he had been drinking, says Myles. That is forbidden in Nuiqsut.

We are not against change in principle, but in favor of prudent development.

"I hate these tree-huggers," he says of the environmentalists in the village. "There are no trees in the Arctic. Let them go south." Myles is a hunter, but he is not afraid that the caribou will avoid the area in the future. On the contrary, he is hoping it will help with hunting. The new roads will allow him to drive closer to the herds. Myles is open to doing business with the oil industry for another, probably a more important reason: like many in the village, he also benefits financially.

"Nuiqsut is one of the few indigenous communities in the world where part of the profit made from the exploitation of their homeland flows back into the community," says Evon Peter, indigenous scientist and writer. Nuiqsut earns well from the oil, while in other places there is still no running water. "The vast, vast majority of our indigenous population is still impoverished and struggling to pay their monthly bills," says Peter. Nuiqsut has the advantage of being located in a region rich in natural resources - Kuukpik has also been able to sign very good contracts with the oil companies.

Kuukpik is an "Indigenous Corporation", a company in which the founders of Nuiqsut and many of their descendants hold shares. Kuukpik signs contracts with the oil industry on behalf of its shareholders. ConocoPhillips pays for the use of the land and offers the indigenous community jobs at times - for example, building ice roads.

The basis for this is the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which was passed by the USA in 1971: The communities that signed up shared securities over around a tenth of Alaska's land - and in exchange gave up their legal claim to the areas they inhabited. "A bad deal," says Sam Kunaknana. "We might have lost everything otherwise."

Today, ANCSA enables the Iñupiat in Nuiqsut to share in the profits of the oil industry. Up to 95 percent of the community's income comes from business with the oil industry, writes the Substack blog Northern Journal from Anchorage. Kuukpik shareholders share in the profits via the dividend. The money has changed life in Nuiqsut: There is now a school, fire department, hotel, power station, and heated houses with thick walls to shield their inhabitants from the severe cold. Running everything is expensive, especially due to Nuiqsut's remote location.

Sam Kunaknana calls dividends "both a curse and a blessing". Because what will happen when the oil runs out one day and there is no more money? "Then we'll live like we did back then," he says, adding that it's not as easy as it sounds. "Many of our children no longer learn anything about the land and hunting," says Rene Opie.

"We are not against change in principle, but in favor of prudent development," says the lively woman. They have tried many things to make their voices heard. According to ConocoPhillips, there have been more than 150 meetings about Willow with local residents and stakeholders. The feedback was incorporated into the design of the project. Rene Opie has a different impression. "They're not listening to the concerns of the community. That is frustrating."

At least the community has managed to ensure that ConocoPhillips is only allowed to build three platforms instead of five, says Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, who was mayor of Nuiqsut until the end of last year. No one from the city council is willing to talk. Ahtuangaruak speaks to the press as a private individual. At the beginning of last year, the city council spoke out against the project in an open letter. In the meantime, however, the council has changed its mind.

In the evening, Sam Kunaknana and the others return to Nuiqsut with zip bags full of berries. Rene Opie puts them in the freezer - with salmon and caribou meat. She wants to use them to make "Eskimo ice cream", a delicacy made from whipped caribou fat, dried meat, and berries, which is eaten on special occasions.

It is strangely warm this Saturday in the Arctic. At dusk, the sky is blood red. Rene Opie goes out onto the terrace and smokes a cigarette. A few young people are speeding along the streets on quads and motorcycles.

At the edge of the village, two mopeds lean against wooden pallets stacked on top of each other on a building site. A few young people are sitting around, three of them balancing on a narrow wooden plank that connects two stacks of pallets. "This is our hiding place," says one girl.

Car parts, skins, antlers, heaps of metal, cages, and harpoons lie in front of the small houses on stilts. Snowmobiles, motorboats and cars rest where the sled dogs used to be leashed.

Somewhere behind Kunaknana's house lies the entrance to an ice cellar that the family no longer uses. This is the fate of many of the traditional refrigerators in the permafrost, which no longer reliably keep things cold due to the rising temperatures.

Summers are getting longer, and winters shorter. This has a profound impact on hunting and wildlife. "Climate change is changing everything here," says Kunaknana. The Arctic is heating up almost four times as fast as the planet as a whole. The permafrost is melting. Climate scientist Rick Thoman is observing how climate change is altering the American Arctic. "The frequency of days with temperatures around minus 50 degrees Celsius is decreasing," he says in his office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The ground on the North Slope is frozen through to a depth of 600 meters. Organic material that has been sealed in the permafrost since the ice age thaws during the summer and is decomposed by microorganisms. This produces carbon dioxide and methane, a gas that is particularly dangerous for the climate.

Since the 1980s, warming in northern Alaska has accelerated dramatically: Arctic winters are now on average seven degrees warmer than in the 1970s. "As a direct consequence, an ice-dominated system is becoming a water-dominated system," says Thoman. Because the ice seals in heat, unlike water, even a very thin ice sheet makes a big difference to the Arctic climate. "But without the ice, more heat escapes from the water into the atmosphere. This causes winter temperatures to rise considerably."

In addition, without the icy protective shield, the sea eats deeper and deeper into the land. The ground is literally slipping away from under the feet of coastal communities and the permafrost is eroding. In recent years, there has been an increase in cases of people drifting out to sea on broken ice floes, says Thoman - a major danger for indigenous hunters.

In the autumn, two weeks after the hunting trip to the tundra, Joe Biden withdrew drilling licenses issued by the Trump administration in protected parts of northern Alaska. At the same time, he banned oil production on around 40 percent of the National Petroleum Reserve. However, the licenses for the Willow project remain unaffected. ConocoPhillips expects it will take four more winters before Willow will produce oil for the first time. Can the project still be stopped?

In November, a federal court dismissed the lawsuit against the oil project. Attorney Psarianos' attempted to delay the construction work until the Ninth Circuit Court confirmed that the lawsuit had so far been unsuccessful. This failed. Construction work started in winter: ice roads are built, gravel is laid and pipeline supports are installed. The ground is only firm enough to support heavy machinery during the cold months.

Meanwhile, opponents of the Willow project are still waiting for the verdict of an appeals court. There should be an answer soon, says Psarianos.

This article was produced with the support of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington D.C.

Photos taken by: Inga Dreyer and David Schmidt.
Translator: Carl Roberts

No. 6/2024, 10 July 2024

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of Arctic Circle.

Inga Dreyer


Is a freelance journalist, editor and research associate from Berlin. She reports on science communication for Wissenschaftskommunikation and is part of a research project on health communication. As a freelancer, she writes about socio political and cultural issues as well as rights of nature.

David Schmidt


Is a freelance journalist with a focus on climate justice, indigenous peoples, the relationships of humans to other beings and our planet, and threatened ecosystems. Traveled to and reported from Ecuador and Alaska. Core team member of Netzwerk Klimajournalismus Deutschland.