Industrializing the Melting Arctic: ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project


Written by: Marija Markovic

Climate change is one of the most debated and controversial topics of our current generation. An issue that stands between many politicians, phenomena such as global warming, the usage of fossil fuels, and habitat destruction are some of the biggest potential destructors for future generations. 

On March 13, 2023, the Biden administration approved the Willow Project, a controversial oil-drilling project set to take place in Alaska’s Northern Slope. A petition regarding the situation has received over five million signatures, and over one million letters have been mailed to the White House urging the Administration to stop the project. The decision has also sparked outrage on social media platform TikTok, with over 50 million views on #StopWillow. ConocoPhillips, a Houston-based energy company that has been drilling in Alaska for years, proposed the idea for the operation in 2017, and the Trump administration approved it in 2020. Now, the Biden administration has continued the deal, and is handling numerous complaints against the decision. As of April 4, 2023, the lawsuits filed against the Project have been blocked by a federal judge in Alaska, and ConocoPhillips has the power to give the Project the green light to begin.

The Willow Project refers back to some of Joe Biden’s original commitments regarding the environment as President. One of his most salient campaign promises was to direct America down the route of combating climate change. “[Joe will] ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050,” his official campaign website states. The site emphasizes the bills Biden plans to sign, and the efforts his administration will partake in to create a more Green America.

The Biden Administration has stuck to a few of these promises. For example, on Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris Agreement, an international treaty that sets out a global framework for keeping the global temperature below 2℃. In his first week in office Biden also established the National Climate Task Force, the White House’s official climate unit that is “meant to meet regularly to chart progress on a series of administration goals including eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the electricity sector by 2035; transitioning federal, state and local government fleets to zero-emissions vehicles; and increasing conservation while also increasing renewable energy production on public land and waters,” according to The New York Times. That final sentence of the Administration’s statement is what is currently America’s biggest deal breaker with the Project.

For the past sixty years, ConocoPhillips has been adamant in its oil-drilling operations in Alaska, exploring its reserves and utilizing its oil resources. The Willow Project would take place in an area where over 600 million barrels of oil are held and would create millions of jobs. It would also establish a source of revenue for state, local, and even the federal government. As desirable as this sounds for the economy, however, there would be substantial effects on the environment. According to Greenly, a French company that measures carbon emissions, “the potential project would require oil drilling sites, compromise road access, disrupt pipelines, and build a processing plant in order to aid in the production of various oils, gasses, and petroleum.” 

The Project would produce enough oil to release nearly ten million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution in the atmosphere each year, and it would be the largest greenhouse gas emitter on public American land. Many environmental groups are also concerned the project could heavily damage the habitat for many native species, and change the migratory patterns of animals such as caribou. Caribou are a vital food source for numerous indigenous communities in the area who are at risk of losing their homes near the village of Utqiagvik, Alaska. “As oil is exported and sent around the globe,” the The Indigenous Foundation writes, “[the] communities [in Utqiagvik] in the Arctic are left to contend with the health impacts of pollution as well as the devastation that comes from dramatic changes to the land like sea ice melt, permafrost thaw, and coastal erosion.” Undeniably, the Willow Project has the potential to alter the lifestyle and resources of an entire community.

Why is the United States so determined to follow through with the project despite its obvious dangers to the environment? The answer is simple: in their eyes, the pros outweigh the cons. They want to secure global energy independence and also boost the Alaskan and Greater American economies. But it’s evident that there are ways to kill two birds with one stone in this dilemma. With a new angle that emphasizes renewable energy sources, the Biden Administration could achieve environmental conservation whilst ensuring economic development.

With relatively high inflation rates the past few years, the U.S. economy hasn’t been in its most successful state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 1.7% inflation rate increased to a whopping 6.2% in 2022, with the 2023 average so far being 5.6%. June 2022 hit peak inflation with a 9.1% rate, with many describing the period as “Bidenflation.” 2022 and 2023’s record high gas prices paired with these high rates created a generally struggling economy, with thousands of citizens angry at paying so much for goods and services.

Many also continue to be frustrated with the Biden administration because the plan breaks one of his biggest campaign promises in 2020, where he assured Americans that new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters would be terminated. He also committed to fighting climate change, and wanted to lead the world by American example. Several lawmakers and activists have spoken out about the project, arguing that it is not a clean way of generating fossil fuels and has obvious dangers to the environment and many different populations. Current court proceedings and legal challenges have temporarily delayed the project launch, and it could be delayed until 2024. Requiring ice roads for its infrastructure, if the project does not begin by April (when Alaska’s winter ends), construction for the Project will not be able to occur until later year.

There are ways to find a balance between stimulating a struggling economy and preserving the environment. First and foremost, the government can create more jobs by developing a project that helps preserve the natural world, like producing a renewable energy source or developing a structure that de-pollutes water. New jobs can help the economy flourish, increasing GDP and generating a healthy economic cycle. The construction of wind turbines or solar panels, for example, would ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst creating thousands of new jobs. To battle inflation, it is important that work is promoted, because increased labor and capital supply can reduce costs of production for firms and decrease the demand needed for products. Renewable energy sources also decrease inflation because they dwindle energy costs, making local and natural energy available to many more populations. There are also known alternatives to oil-drilling, such as biodiesel, a biodegradable fuel that comes from recycled restaurant grease, animal fats, and vegetable oils. Biodiesel is shown to provide a number of services for society such as fueling cars and charging electronics. If the Biden Administration prioritized funding projects that benefit the environment, America could succeed not only economically, but also lead the world in environmental preservation.

Who will win the race for the Willow Project? As of right now, the federal government seems to be ahead with the recent blocking of lawsuits. But previous activism against the Project demonstrated the power of the people in halting its start date. However, only time and President Biden’s executive actions will tell for its future and the future of a Greener America.

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