Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Community engagement in massive oil drilling project applauded at UT Energy Week

Allie Castaneda
Graduate students Charles-Umashankar Egharevba (left) and Sejal Shah (middle) hang up their presentation highlighting the applications of nanomaterials in the energy sector during Willow Energy Week on March 27, 2024.

Nagruk Harcharek, president of The Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, said meeting with and valuing communities near drilling sites helped the Willow oil drilling project succeed at a panel during UT Energy Week on Wednesday.

The Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat is a non-profit organization aiming to provide a voice for the people of the Arctic Slope. When planning the Willow Project in Alaska, the White House and UT Energy partner ConocoPhillips incorporated local feedback into their plans, Harcharek said.

The Willow Project is a massive oil drilling on Alaska’s North Slope that plans to produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak, making it one of the biggest oil drilling projects in U.S. history, according to the ConocoPhillips website. The drilling will also provide 2,500 construction jobs and approximately 300 long-term jobs, which Harcharek said Alaska heavily needs.

Harcharek said the project aims to employ mostly in-state employees in oil drilling projects in Alaska to benefit local workers, but that transition cannot be done overnight. He said if community engagement is done right, big projects like the Willow Project can help workers get more experience in the field.

The project will also provide $1.2 billion in property taxes for the North Slope Borough, which Harcharek said receives 95% of its total property tax receipts from oil and gas. He said the borough reinvests its income into new developments for the community.

Environmentalist groups filed a lawsuit in 2020 before the project’s approval against the Bureau of Land Management in attempts to halt the project.

Nauri Simmonds, executive director of The Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, said the Willow Project disproportionately affects residents of Nuiqsut, a predominantly Iñupiaq village located 36 miles away from the project site. Nuiqsut residents testified against the project and expressed concerns including environmental and food supply damage. Simmonds said the pandemic made community engagement more challenging as planning occurred mostly online, and some residents did not have enough technological experience to navigate that, so they were not able to access the commenting period.

“My approach is inviting everyone to the same table so we can start working together with the understanding that, although I disagree with oil and gas development and expansion, I don’t want to demonize and nor do I think negatively of people who do support it,” Simmonds said. 

Harcharek said the federal government met with the North Slope Borough, which founded The Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, to ask for its input and fulfill some of its requests. He said the Borough had to approve the plan before the federal government could, which encouraged the government to attend borough meetings in Alaska and physically engage with the community. 

However, Harcharek said the government has been more distant with other projects, including the proposal of new rules for the National Petroleum Reserve. He said they overlooked Indigenous communities’ inputs and lost sight of community engagement overall. 

“If you say you’re going to do something then at least have the courtesy to have a conversation, even if it’s bad news,” Harcharek said.

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