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Indigenous groups lash out after an oil drilling project is approved in Alaska


President Biden's approval of an oil drilling project in northern Alaska has rattled climate advocates who say it defies the administration's climate goals. The approval of what's known as the Willow Project has also alienated some Indigenous residents of Alaska's North Slope, who hoped for an end to new drilling on federal land. Jade Begay is with the advocacy group NDN Collective, which supports Indigenous rights and opposes the Willow Project. She also sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and she's with us this morning. Good morning, Jade.

JADE BEGAY: Good morning. Great to be here.

FADEL: Thanks for being here. So what was your reaction to the Biden administration's approval of this oil drilling project?

BEGAY: Yeah, thank you for the question. I think just off the bat, really disappointed. I personally am really excited and have been really excited about a lot of the climate commitments and the climate agenda at large and have been an advocate for implementing that and wanting to see that climate agenda succeed and have been working to make sure that that happens. However, this really is counterintuitive to a lot of the work that I am doing and that many others are doing on the ground.

FADEL: What are your biggest concerns?

BEGAY: Well, I think, you know, the obvious concern is that this really backtracks a lot of the climate commitments made by the Biden administration.

FADEL: Now, there are Indigenous groups that support Willow. We spoke to - Nagruk Harcharek is with the group called Voice of the Arctic Inupiat. Here's what he told us.

NAGRUK HARCHAREK: Biden said it. We're going to need the oil for at least 10 years, is what he mentioned. I think there's an easy argument that it's going to be longer than that. Do you get it within the United States where the project's gone through the most or a lot of environmental scrutiny through the permitting process? Do you outsource that to other countries like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, where - you know, if it's not Alaska, we've got to get it from somewhere.

FADEL: So what do you think of that argument, that it needs to happen somewhere?

BEGAY: Right. Well, I think, you know, it's correct that we can't just stop using oil and gas overnight, but that is why we advocate for a justice-based transition. And I think one of the things that's concerning is that Biden did make the commitment to invest in innovative solutions to improve the array of and the options of solutions for affordable, reliable, clean energy technologies and infrastructure. So this type of commitment to oil and gas, which really just locks in, you know, potentially 30 years of more oil and gas extraction in ecosystems that are so sensitive really puts us on, like I said earlier, just this, you know, two steps forward, one step backward. And it's concerning because we're not going to reach our targets to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

FADEL: So it sounds like you don't see this as fitting into the administration's goal to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030.

BEGAY: That's right.

FADEL: Jade Begay is with the advocacy group NDN Collective, and she's a member of the White House Environmental Justice Council. Thank you so much for taking the time.

BEGAY: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.