Biden Administration Approves Controverial Willow Drilling Project in Alaska’s North Slope

Critics say the project is a ‘carbon bomb’ that runs counter to president’s climate goals.

Dashing any last hopes of a presidential veto, the Biden administration today announced its approval of ConocoPhillips’ multibillion dollar Willow oil and gas project in Alaska’s North Slope. Climate and Native American activists have been strongly opposed to the project — now set to be the largest oil drilling project on US public lands — which they say is a “carbon bomb” that runs counter to Biden’s purported climate goals. When completed, the project will pump 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day from three well pads (down from the five initially proposed) for 30 years and spew more than 260 million metric tons of carbon into the air over the same period.

photo of caribou in the Alaskan Arctic

Activists say the Willow Project will wreak damage on critical caribou and grizzly habitats in the Alaskan Arctic and on the climate at a time we need to be rapidly ramping down fossil fuel extraction. Photo by Bob Wick / BLM.

The project will ironically involve using chilling tubes to keep the ground frozen while drilling through permafrost that’s already thawing thanks to climate chaos induced by the burning of fossil fuels. “No version of this project makes any sense if you claim to believe in science, climate change, and environmental justice,” Greenpeace USA said in a tweet after the decision was made public.

ConocoPhillips has described Willow as the “next great Alaska hub.” It has identified up to 3 billion barrels of nearby oil prospects that could be accessed if the Willow drill pads were in place. The company holds about 1 million of the 2.5 million acres already under lease in the neighboring National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), a vast federally managed area under increasing threat from oil and gas development.

Biden has also been under immense pressure from Alaska politicians, labor unions, and some Indigenous communities to approve the project on the grounds that it would bring much-needed jobs and revenue for the state.

The announcement comes a day after the administration said it would bar drilling in 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea and restrict drilling in 13 million acres of the NPR-A. But activists say that decision, though welcome, will do little to offset the damage the Willow Project will wreak on the climate and to critical caribou and grizzly habitats in the Alaskan Arctic. They say the project will disrupt animal migration patterns in the Western Arctic and harm subsistence practices of Alaska Native communities and pose a risk to their health as well.

Today’s decision comes despite the Biden administration acknowledgement in February that there were “substantial concerns” about the Willow project including its greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native communities.

“The Willow Project would disproportionately harm the Alaska Native Village of Nuiqsut, already grappling with extreme pollution from existing oil projects,” points out Allie Rosenbluth, US program manager at the watchdog group Oil Change International. “In the wake of last year’s North Slope gas leak, the Nuiqsut community suffered from headaches, breathing problems, and nausea.”

“The true cost of the Willow Project is to the land and to animals and people forced to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water,” Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic said in a statement. “While out-of-state executive taken in record profits, local residents are left to contend with the detrimental impacts of being surrounded by massive drilling operations.”

“With today’s decision, President Biden has dug himself a massive hole when it comes to public lands and the energy transition,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities said in a statement.

Rokala said that if the administration does intend to stick to its goal of protecting 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, Biden needs to act immediately to offset the impacts of the Willow Project by, among other things, fast-tracking “a rulemaking to end all future oil and gas lease sales throughout the rest of the NPR-A” and making sure the Department of Interior codifies its implementation of the oil and gas leasing reforms in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). “The IRA overhauled a rigged and broken system, but making those reforms durable will require a concerted effort across his administration to ensure a rule is finalized by spring of 2024,” she said.

Activists say while the decision is a huge blow to the struggle to maintain a livable planet, the climate movement will continue pressing forward. “The fight to #StopWillow and all new fossil fuel projects isn’t over. Our movement to fight fossils is continuing to grow — and we’ll continue to fight for a livable future in line with science and justice,” People vs Fossil Fuels said in a statement.

“Willow is Biden’s climate legacy,” Climate Hawks Vote President RL Miller said in a tweet. “And history will not remember him well.”

Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the volume of crude oil the Willow Project would extract from the three proposed well pads per day.

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