Exclusive: Mary Peltola Defends Pushing Willow Project in Alaska: 'We Have Needs!'

Alaska's sole congresswoman has defended her support for a new oil drilling project in the northernmost part of the state, despite it being viewed by environmentalists as a betrayal of the Biden administration's pledges to push America toward lower carbon emissions and clean energy.

Mary Peltola, the at-large Democrat representative for Alaska, who is Yup'ik, told Newsweek that Native Alaskans must be provided with economic support if the move to renewable energy was to be "a truly just transition."

"Willow is not a step back—it is an essential step forward in our energy transition," she said. "Alaska is not an empty snow globe—people live here, and we have needs!"

She revealed that she had met with President Joe Biden, along with the Republican senators for Alaska Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, on Thursday to discuss the proposal, and has been communicating "extensively" with administration officials including John Podesta, Biden's senior adviser on clean energy innovation, and Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the interior.

ConocoPhillips, Alaska's largest crude-oil producer, has proposed five drilling sites in the state's North Slope as part of its Willow Project, after making a "significant" new oil discovery in the remote region in January 2017. The company says that the project would create 2,500 construction jobs and 300 permanent roles, and would represent the largest of its kind in the region in over two decades.

Mary Peltola
Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK) speaks to supporters at a watch party on November 08, 2022 in Anchorage, Alaska. The first Native Alaskan to be elected to Congress, she has voiced her support for the Willow Project, which is expected to bring jobs to the North Slope region. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which governs one-eighth of the country's landmass, recommended the project for approval in February. However, it added that the Willow Project should include just three sites initially.

Even this, though, would lead to an estimated production of 278 million tons of greenhouse gases over the project's 30-year span—the same level of emissions as 700 gas-fired power plants produce in a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has been weighing whether to approve the project, a decision which is expected imminently. It has previously said it had "substantial concerns" about the project and its projected emissions.

But Alaskan lawmakers, including representatives of Native Alaskan communities, have been lobbying the administration to approve the Willow Project as it would present an economic boon to the state. The BLM thinks the Willow Project could generate between $8 billion and $17 billion in revenue.

Peltola noted, as have experts in environmental policy, that while Biden has spearheaded legislation that has jump-started America's move towards renewable energy sources, its transition to clean energy will take decades, and other energy sources—such as fossil fuels—will still be needed in that time.

She said: "The President is correct that we will need gap oil for at least the next decade, and the Bureau of Land Management's own analysis shows that if we don't produce American oil with Willow, oil will still be produced somewhere else with lower environmental standards.

"Importing our energy from abroad incurs even higher environmental costs than producing it here at home," Peltola added.

The Willow Project poses not only a cost to the environment in terms of the emissions it will contribute towards, but would also require building drilling sites in an area of largely untouched natural beauty. Petitions to halt the approval have gained millions of signatures in recent days.

But Peltola disagreed with the notion that the North Slope was an area of "unchanged wilderness."

"Alaska Native people have been living on the North Slope and managing those lands and waters for tens of thousands of years," she said.

Oil rig north slope alaska
The BP North Star oil station in the North Slope, the northernmost region of Alaska, as seen on June 6, 2003. The Willow project would see new drilling stations built in the region, and could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day. Damian Gillie/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

As the first and only Alaska Native to be elected to Congress, Peltola said she was "working hard to make my party understand that a truly just transition to renewable energy must also provide economic support and opportunity for indigenous communities like Noatak, where gasoline costs over $14.49 a gallon.

"If we don't listen to their voices but pretend to know what's best for them, then we will end up leaving them behind, and that is unacceptable to me," she added.

To minimize criticism of any approval of the new project, the Biden administration is considering reducing the number of drilling sites to two, according to CNN, citing White House sources. It has reportedly offered to drop the most ecologically sensitive site and boost conservation elsewhere in the state.

Peltola confirmed that the Willow Project has already been "scaled down and reworked significantly," adding that total emissions would amount to 0.3 percent of the U.S.'s projected emissions in 2030—which she described as "negligible in the grand scheme of emissions, and orders of magnitude fewer than China's annual emissions."

She admitted, though, that the proposal would "have some impacts on nearby communities in the form of increased vehicle traffic and other construction-related activities."

While the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, dodged questions on its involvement in deliberations on the Willow Project on Thursday, Peltola revealed Biden was intimately involved in discussions.

Referring to the meeting with Biden, she said: "The conversation was respectful and I am hopeful that he will listen to us and the voices of Alaska's elected leaders, union workers, and indigenous communities who are strongly in support of this project."