Biden approves controversial Willow Project

Natalie Bartelt, Editor-in-Chief

After months of debate over whether or not the controversial Willow Project would follow through, the Biden Administration has approved the plan on Mar. 13, 2023.

The Willow Project will allow ConocoPhillips, a Houston energy corporation, to drill oil in the North Slope of Alaska–30 miles from the Arctic Ocean–making it one of largest oil drilling projects on federal land. The land known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) was first established in 1923 specifically for oil and gas development by President Warren G. Harding. Though a resourceful environment for U.S. oil, it is also home to polar bears and thousands of other animals, such as caribou. 

The plans were first presented in 2020 to the Trump Administration and five drill pads were agreed upon, though the Biden Administration cut the pads down to three–which would allow for drilling of 90 percent of the oil they are in pursuit of.

The hopes of the project are to create independence from other countries that supply the U.S. with oil and establish a more domestic economy. It is projected to generate billions of dollars of tax revenue and other economic activity. However, this new source of oil will only increase the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, creating discussions over if the revenue will be worth the harm brought to species essential in the ecosystem, the effect on air quality, and what the plan means for indigenous peoples who are local to the area.

Many are disappointed in the decision particularly because ending oil drilling on federal land was a campaign promise President Biden made when he announced his run for presidency. “No more drilling on federal land, period,” he told supporters. Using governmental power to fight against climate change was a key point Biden pushed as he began his presidency, and White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council member Jade Begay told NPR, “The obvious concern is that this really backtracks a lot of the climate commitments made by the Biden Administration.” She furthered, “We’re not going to reach our targets to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

The project is estimated to produce 576 million barrels of oil within the next 30 years. The effect of this process will emit an estimated 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (this would be equivalent to putting 1.7 million gas-powered cars on the road each year).

Many groups have gone through with suing the Biden Administration, including Trustees for Alaska arguing that the administration failed to address climate risks that would accompany the project and the danger it will put species like polar bears in. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, Environment America, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center are all parties to the lawsuit.

Despite some assumptions, the Biden Administration claimed they could not legally reject the project as Conoco already had leases for the area and not submitting to the plans could have resulted in fines and legal backlash from ConocoPhillips. 

The start of construction is still not determined as more lawsuits are filed, a large one by EarthJustice. If successful, legal challenges could delay the plans for at least a year.