What to Know About the Willow Project and its Controversy

Source: The New York Times

By Tulesi Suresh

The Biden administration approved the Willow Oil Project on March 13, sparking massive controversy over its climate impacts. This is the largest oil extraction project ever proposed in the United States, with an $8 Billion cost by oil giant ConocoPhillips. The drilling will be done on Alaska’s North Shore, which until now was the largest single expanse of untouched land in the United States.

What is the Willow Project?
The Willow Oil Extraction Project is a massive drilling project proposed by the oil giant ConocoPhillips. It will take place in Alaska’s North Slope, which is federal land. That area holds up to 600 million barrels of oil, but it would take years to be drilled and brought to the market. Originally, it was approved by the Trump administration in 2020, and is now approved at a reduced size by the Biden administration.

What are the environmental impacts?
Since Alaska’s North Slope is less than 30 miles from the Arctic Ocean, the region is home to polar bears, migrating caribou, and waterfowl. The Willow Project would affect caribou migration patterns. Since it is federally owned land, it makes it difficult for the public to intervene. Hundreds of miles of roads, pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine, and a processing facility are also planned to be built on the otherwise untouched land. This would destroy a large portion of the tundra and wetland. While around 600 barrels of oil could be produced over 30 years of drilling, that oil would put about 250 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, similar to the effects of driving 1.7 million cars a year. The environmental damage would be irreparable, including danger to Arctic wildlife and people nearby that rely on that land. The project has been nicknamed a “carbon bomb”.

Why is it so controversial?
One main reason is that the Biden Administration will not be able to reach its environmental targets. Namely, the decision to drill makes it nearly impossible for the United States to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030. Also, Biden promised during his campaign that there would be ‘no more drilling on federal lands, period,’ which contradicts this recent decision. This makes many people feel betrayed and nervous about the future of the nation’s energy usage. Since the oil will only be usable years ahead from now, people feel that the project is a sign that America is fine with using fossil fuels in the future.

In the months leading up to its approval, it has been criticized widely due to its environmental impacts. Gen Z has used the hashtag #StopWillow on TikTok and Instagram to spread awareness of the issue. Over a million letters were written and over three million signed a petition in hopes for Biden to reject Willow. In attempts to calm criticism, Biden is expected to announce heavy restrictions on offshore oil leasing across Alaska’s North Slope.

Although the younger generations and people that care about the environment oppose Willow, many Alaskans support what it will do for their economy. As such, in Alaska, there is a majority consensus in support of the project. New jobs will be created, boosting money to support schools, public services, and infrastructure investments in otherwise isolated communities. For example, the affected region has housing shortages, and up until a few decades ago, no running water. Much of the opposition to the project comes from people outside of the state.

What has been done since approval?
A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the approval. They argue that the massive emissions would undermine the climate goals of the United States. The Arctic is dramatically warming, and the Willow Project would threaten the land there.