What To Know About the Just-Approved $8B Willow Project’s Potential Impact on the Planet

Photo: Johnny Johsnon
Along the northern slope of Alaska, rivers weave across the expansive tundra, creating lush habitat for caribou and migratory birds on the nation’s largest single swath of public undeveloped land at more than 23 million acres. But, following the Biden Administration's approval of the Willow project on Monday, that land—the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A)—may no longer remain undisturbed, calling into question President Joseph R. Biden's previous stance on policy surrounding environmentalism, sustainability, and climate change.

The project is an $8 billion development venture that will allow ConocoPhillips, a crude oil producer, to drill into the underground reservoir of oil in the region and extract 600 million barrels of oil.

On March 13th, the Biden Administration approved the Willow Project after decades of legal debates. This massive development project stands to transform a portion of the northern Alaskan landscape into a facility capable of pumping out over 180,000 barrels of oil per day over a 30-year timespan, according to ConocoPhillips.

The Willow project stands to negatively impact the surrounding wildlife habitats and Alaska Native communities, in addition to the prospect climate-focused progress.

Proponents point out that the project stands to create an estimated 2,800 jobs and generate between $8 and 17 billion in revenue for the federal government, the state of Alaska, and the North Slope Borough communities.

The project is at odds with President Biden’s climate goals to create a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. It also stands to negatively impact the surrounding wildlife habitats and Alaska Native communities, in addition to the prospect climate-focused progress.

Why was the Willow project approved?

Most of the land in the NPR-A is federally owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is legally available to lease for oil and mining. ConocoPhillips acquired the leases to the land back in the 1990s, and in 2020, the Trump Administration gave the green light for drilling.

However, Sharon Gleason, chief judge on the U.S. District Court of Alaska, reversed this decision in 2021, citing that the environmental analysis was flawed and failed to properly measure greenhouse gas emissions. The BLM then performed a supplemental analysis to address gaps in the initial plan.

The Biden Administration has approved this project to appease the oil company and stay “consistent with the terms of existing leases,” according to the BLM's Record of Decision. The project also received high praise from both Democratic and Republican Alaskan lawmakers for its potential to drive economic revenue and job creation.

It’s worth noting that the Biden Administration didn't grant the Willow project full approval. Originally, ConocoPhillips proposed to operate five drill sites, but the approved pared-down version of the plan includes three sites. The aim here is to mitigate negative impact on wildlife habitat by reducing the surface footprint by cutting out things like roads. While this may be an environmentally preferred alternative than more invasive proposals of the plan, it still comes with a whole host of problems.

Potential negative impacts of the Willow project to know about

Nonprofit environmental groups, like Earthjustice and the Wilderness Society, have critiqued the Willow project for its short- and long-term environmental and social justice ramifications for local communities. With regard to the social justice component, officials from the City of Nuiqsut and Native Village of Nuiqsut, which sits on the border of the National Petroleum Reserve, oppose the development due to concerns for their health and way of life. According to a statement by the U.S. Department of the Interior, even the BLM has concerns about the project, including “direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”

This project has indirect emissions of 239 million metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to the total annual electricity use of over 30 million homes. Environmental analysis also found that this project would also release black carbon (pM2.5), which research has found to have toxic effects on the health of community members near the pollution source. “If the BLM knows that our health is deteriorating, how can it in good conscience allow an activity to go forward, which will make our health worse?” ask Nuiqsut city mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, vice mayor Carl Brower, and president of the Native Village of Nuiqsut Eunice Brower in a joint letter to the Department of the Interior.

Not only would the drilling and extraction release harmful levels of greenhouse gases into the air when the U.S. should be reducing our emissions for climate-protection efforts, but the associated infrastructure to produce and transport the oil would be massive. The final proposal selected by the Biden Administration includes 199 oil wells, 89.6 miles of pipeline, hundreds of miles of roads, bridges, boat ramps, an airstrip, a central processing facility, and a gravel mine site—among other required developments. These roadways and landscape changes stand to stress out animals, potentially altering the migration and movement patterns of caribou, wolves, and thousands of bird species.

That could yield an ecological disaster, and it would also impact the Nuiqsut population’s harvest access and ability to support themselves. A 2018 analysis found that the effects on subsistence and sociocultural systems of oil drilling in the region may be highly adverse and disproportionately born by the Nuiqsut population. According to the document, rapid modernization associated with a huge development boom (think: noise and air pollution and increased human activity) could increase stress levels and exacerbate mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

But while President Biden’s approval gives the go-ahead for ConocoPhillips to start building, we won’t see any oil pumped from the ground until the infrastructure is in place. In the meantime, environmental organizations and law groups are saddling up for a series of legal battles to attempt to delay development. Now is the time for concerned citizens to make their voices heard, whether through social media campaigns like #StopWillow (on platforms including Instagram and TikTok), via donation to nonprofit organizations like Earthjustice and Wilderness Society, or otherwise getting involved in the efforts such orgs support. Because what do jobs and money matter when the health of the planet hangs in the balance?

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