After weeks of speculation, the Biden administration has approved a controversial $8bn drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope. The ConocoPhillips Willow project will be one of the largest of its kind on US soil and will involve drilling for oil and gas at three sites for multiple decades on the 23m-acre National Petroleum Reserve. The land is owned by the federal government and it’s currently the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the US. It’s been a tough road to realising Willow, with the plans subject to judicial scrutiny in both the Trump and Biden administrations – but now that it is officially confirmed, what will happen?
It is anticipated that it will run for 30 years, and it will generate up to 278 million metric tonnes of CO2 over that lifetime.
According to proposal figures, the Willow project will be able to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day once it is fully operational. It is anticipated that it will run for 30 years, and it will generate up to 278 million metric tonnes of CO2 over that lifetime. For reference, 1 million metric tons of CO2 is equivalent to the average annual emissions of 115,000 homes in the USA. There is clear unease in the White House about approving the project, with candidate Joe Biden promising in 2020 that there would be “no more drilling on federal lands, period” but being on the losing side of court cases and legal action. Alongside the announcement, then, there came other pieces of environmental news – the White House has outlined new bans on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Ocean and across Alaska.
For many environmentalists, those counter-measures don’t cut the mustard. Lena Moffitt, executive director of the climate group Evergreen Action, said: “Approving the Willow Project is an unacceptable departure from President Biden’s promises to the American people on climate and environmental justice. After all that this administration has done to advance climate action and environmental justice, it is heart-breaking to see a decision that we know will poison Arctic communities and lock in decades of climate pollution we simply cannot afford.”
The only reasonable solution to the climate emergency is to deny new fossil fuel projects like Willow.
–Sonia Ahkivgak, social outreach coordinator at the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic group
There is also anger among Native communities. Sonia Ahkivgak, social outreach coordinator at the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic group, said: “The Biden administration’s approval makes it clear that its call for climate action and the protection of biodiversity is talk, not action. The only reasonable solution to the climate emergency is to deny new fossil fuel projects like Willow. Our fight has been long and also it has only begun. We will continue to call for a stop to Willow because the lives of local people and future generations depend on it.”
Joe Biden indicated that climate and environmental policies will be a big part of his governance, and he enacted some major climate moves from day one, re-joining the Paris Agreement and cancelling the Keystone XL oil pipeline. He faced criticism for the latter policy – it came during the Covid-19 pandemic, and there were concerns that Biden was failing to consider national energy security. He also worked on emptying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, ostensibly to help lower fuel inflation after the invasion of Ukraine (although it was noteworthy that he then campaigned on reduced fuel prices in advance of the mid-terms), but that emergency supply will need refilling.
The ultimate point at the moment is that, despite being framed as a climate president, Biden’s practice is mixed. For many, though, Willow is a backwards step that erases all of the climate gains thus far. In a bill last year, Biden promoted new wind and solar projects, pushed electric cars, and vowed to make America a global leader in the push for net zero. But the impact of Willow is giant – it would mitigate the emissions cuts provided by all of these proposals and then some. Although officials in the administration say that Willow won’t stop the US from achieving Biden’s clean energy goals, it’s hard to see how they could possibly still be kept, even despite a ‘protecting the future’ framing.
Biden is talking the talk but failing to walk the walk, and it’s likely that the approval of Willow will render all of his positive policies meaningless.
It’s also worth noting that, according to the International Energy Agency, no new oil or gas drilling can go ahead if the world wants to keep the rise in global temperatures under 1.5°C – this was news that was welcomed by the US government, and now seemingly spat on. Biden is talking the talk but failing to walk the walk, and it’s likely that the approval of Willow will render all of his positive policies meaningless. There have been arguments for and against the project on economic grounds in the near future, but it’s hard not to think of the long-term and wonder when the carbon bomb will ultimately go off.