By SUZANNE DOWNING
Revenge, the saying goes, is a dish best served cold. But when it comes to Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, vengeance on Alaskans is icy.
When Haaland was pressured to approve the ConocoPhillips Willow Project, a modest oil field in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, she did so against her will.
Haaland choked up while speaking with a room of Alaska Natives from the radical side of the spectrum who oppose the drilling permit, as she explained her agency had “difficult choices to make,” according to those present at the meeting.
The choice, it seems, had been taken out of her hands and was made by election strategists in the Oval Office, because Haaland could not be trusted to take the correct political action. The White House is especially sensitive to the election cycle ahead and propping up Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola of Alaska, who is somewhat of an electorally endangered politician in this still-red state.
Haaland, however, is sympathetic to a village of Alaska Natives who oppose the NPR-A project, while nearly all other Alaskans of all stripes support responsible oil development.
President Joe Biden stated during his 2020 campaign that he would put an end to oil. Then-Rep. Haaland was in agreement with that, so long as future curbs on hydrocarbons do not impact her home state of New Mexico’s relatively new position as the No. 2 producer of oil in America, after Texas.
While she has remade the Interior Department into a parks-and-rec agency, New Mexico has a carve out. It now produces 1.7 million barrels per day of oil, and in 2021 produced 2,237 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
Haaland’s actions show she prefers Alaska oil remains locked down. With her hand forced on Willow, Haaland announced her agency would not only reduce the scope of the project by 40 percent, it would take another 16 million acres of Alaska off the table for any future development. Haaland is taking the equivalent of West Virginia.
The day after the Willow decision and simultaneous land grab was formally announced, Haaland exacted further revenge: She took back land the Interior Department had traded with a tiny Native corporation in Alaska in 2019.
King Cove, population about 875, has an economy tied to year-round commercial fishing. It’s a stormy corner on the edge of the world and while the cove provides protection from the wild Bering Sea, it is shrouded with low-hanging fog much of the time. Small planes cannot get in or out, and if a worker is injured or a mother is in labor, the people must hope for the best and take a boat to Cold Bay, where there is an all-weather, FAA-managed airport and where medical evacuation to Anchorage is much more likely. In the winter, King Cove’s waters are covered with foot-deep ice, and so not just any boat will do.
King Cove Corp., the Native village, has been trying to build that short gravel road to Cold Bay for decades, but the Izembek Wildlife Refuge sits between the communities, and the federal government allows no overland access between the towns.
The matter bounced around the courts for years, with environmentalists using the same “existential threat to humanity” messaging they recently played on Willow.
Finally, former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt agreed to a land swap with the village corporation to allow the one-lane gravel road. That was during the Trump Administration, but even the Biden Administration joined with King Cove Corp., the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, the Native Village of Belkofski and the State of Alaskato defend it after environmental groups sued, as they do.
A year ago, a federal appeals court reversed a district court decision that rejected the land swap. Things were looking up for the people of King Cove, at long last.
Now, however, Haaland is in a dark mood. She lost face among Nuiqsut village leaders when she was forced to announce the Willow record of decision, and she was out for blood. She took her revenge on the people of King Cove, about half of which are Alaska Natives, by unilaterally taking back the land the department had already traded. The cover story is that it needs to be studied more. This is the equivalent of a kill shot; she has put the land swap in a place where it simply cannot be extracted — the bureaucracy.
Haaland’s actions are inconsistent with her stated support for the Natives of Alaska. She denied a life-saving road for the purpose of face saving, virtue signaling, and score settling in a corner of the world that the Biden Administration continues to treat as a colony.
Suzanne Downing is publisher of Must Read Alaska.