The Willow Project: An environmental failure


The Biden administration-approved Willow Project is projected to drill oil at an expected rate of 180,000 barrels per day. Over its 30-year lifespan, the project will contribute to many negative environmental impacts, including the emission of an expected 263 million tons of greenhouse gases. (Cartoon by Dane Coyne)

     On March 13, 2023, the Biden administration approved a major oil project in Alaska named the Willow Project. According to ConocoPhillips, the crude oil company involved, the project would drill oil at a potential rate of 180,000 barrels of oil per day. This massive output will, admittedly, create thousands of Alaskan jobs and is expected to generate substantial tax revenue for public services. This all sounds financially beneficial, but at what cost? At what point does the economy become more important than the future of the planet?

     If continued, the drilling will occur in the North Slope of Alaska, the largest untouched wilderness area in the entirety of the United States. Over its 30-year lifespan, the Willow Project is expected to emit 263 million tons of greenhouse gases.

     According to the Global Carbon Budget, with the current rate of gas pollution worldwide, the world has essentially 11 years to avoid a worst-case scenario future due to climate change. This future will include vastly rising sea levels that could bring some cities underwater, more severe hurricanes and wildfires that could lead to displacement and injury of thousands and more unthinkable consequences.

     “This is a huge climate threat and inconsistent with this administration’s promises to take on the climate crisis,” Alaskan senior attorney at environmental law group Earthjustice, Jeremy Lieb, said to CNN.

     To many environmental activists, this plan is a betrayal, specifically from President Biden. This is because, during his presidential campaign, he promised to treat climate change with urgency and fight to reduce greenhouse emissions. 

     In response to these claims, opinions on Willow Project blew up on many social media platforms, including TikTok. Millions of people began to take a strong stance against the project. As more conversation went on about the project, over three million people signed a petition and over one million wrote letters to the White House, calling for its end. 

     In most other controversial environmental situations, activists often aim to protect indigenous communities who would often feel the effect of nature’s destruction. This argument is not so straightforward in the case of the Willow Project, where some Native Alaskan tribes have voiced their support for the project.

     “Without that money and revenue stream [from the Willow Project], we’re reliant on the state and the feds,” president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat Nagruk Harcharek said to CNN. 

     These indigenous groups, such as Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, advocate for the project not because they want to destroy the landscape but because it seems the community’s only means of survival. In contrast, many other Native American groups in Alaska and throughout the country do not think this decision is in the best interest of Native Americans or wildlife.

     “The Biden administration’s approval of the ConocoPhillips Willow project makes no sense for the health of the Arctic or the planet and comes after numerous calls by local communities for tribal consultation and real recognition of the impacts to land, water, animals and people,” executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA) Siqiñiq Maupin wrote in a statement.

     It is speculated that the reason Biden approved the project at all was because of the apparent whole of Alaskan communities’ support. But, as seen with SILA, this support is far from unanimous. 

     Environmental organizations such as Trustees for Alaska, the Alaska Wilderness League, the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, among others, have filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration. They argue that the president and his staff have failed to consider the future environmental effects of the Willow Project and that the plan will ignore the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) it claims to incorporate.

     The issues these activist organizations are concerned about have been recognized before by the federal courts, specifically U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, during the Trump administration. After Judge Gleason’s review, the Willow Project was pushed back until adjustments were made to address the potential environmental impacts. If the outcome is similar today, there is hope that the project will be halted for the sake of the local wildlife and community. 

     If the Willow Project does not continue, the Indigenous communities fighting for it may be left without the revenue stream they need to thrive. This situation should be addressed thoroughly, but the answer is not to burn more fossil fuels. The answer is to fight for environmental justice while assisting struggling communities through the federal funding and resources everyone deserves. 

     If the U.S. is in a place where profit is more important than the world’s future, then there is no hope for succeeding generations. There are other, more beneficial options than the Willow Project. Each should be carefully considered before the Biden administration makes hasty decisions that could impact the world’s people in unthinkable ways. There is still time to turn the project around as long as the people of the United States make their voices heard.