On March 13, the Biden administration approved the controversial Willow Project in Alaska.
ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope has been going through the administration’s approval process for months, sparking a sudden outburst of online activism against it, including more than a million letters written to the White House protesting the project and a change. org reports over 3 million signatures.
Here’s what you need to know about the Willow Project.
ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project is a massive and long-standing oil development operation on the North Slope of Alaska in the National Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government.
The area where the project is planned holds up to 600 million barrels of oil. This oil would take years to reach the market as the project has yet to be built.
ConocoPhillips is a Houston-based energy company that has been exploring and drilling for oil in Alaska for years. The company is the only one that currently has oil drilling operations in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, although its two operating projects are smaller than Willow would be.
Willow was proposed by ConocoPhillips and initially approved by the Trump administration in 2020. ConocoPhillips was initially approved to build five drill pads, which the Biden administration eventually reduced to three. Three pads will allow the company to drill about 90% of the oil it seeks.
The Biden administration felt its hands were tied with the project because Conoco has existing and valid leases in the area, two government sources told CNN. They decided that legally, the courts would not allow them to completely reject or drastically scale back the project, the sources said. Had they pursued these options, they could have faced hefty fines in addition to legal action from ConocoPhillips.
Now that the Biden administration has given the green light to the Willow project, construction can begin. However, it is unclear exactly when that will happen, largely due to pending legal challenges.
Earthjustice, an environmental law group, is expected to file a complaint against the project soon and will likely seek an injunction to try to block the project from going forward.
Environmental groups and ConocoPhillips are in a race against time. Construction at Willow can only take place during the winter season because it needs ice roads to build the rest of the oil project’s infrastructure — including hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines and a processing facility. Depending on the weather, Alaska’s winter season could end sometime in April.
If environmental groups secure an injunction to stop or delay the project before then, it could delay construction for at least a year. And since the project must be fully constructed before the oil can be produced, it could take years for the oil pumped from Willow to reach the market.
The Willow Project will almost certainly face a legal challenge. Earthjustice told CNN it is preparing a complaint and has already begun laying out its legal case, saying the Biden administration’s authority to protect surface resources on Alaska’s public lands includes taking steps to reduce warming carbon pollution the planet – something Willow will eventually add to her.
“We and our customers do not see any acceptable version of this project, we believe that [environmental impact] The analysis is illegal,” Jeremy Lieb, senior attorney for Alaska-based Earthjustice, told CNN.
State lawmakers say the project will create jobs, boost domestic energy production and reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. All three lawmakers in Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation met with President Joe Biden and his top advisers on March 3, urging the president and his administration to approve the plan.
A coalition of Alaska Native groups on the North Slope also supports the project, saying it could be a much-needed new source of revenue for the region and fund services including education and health care.
“Willow presents an opportunity to continue that investment in communities,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told CNN. “Without that flow of money and revenue, we’re reliant on state and federal authorities.”
Other Alaska Natives who live closer to the planned project, including city officials and tribal members in the Nuiqsut Native Village, are deeply concerned about the health and environmental impacts of a major oil development.
In a recent personal letter to Interior Minister Deb Haaland, Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and two other Nuiqsut town and tribal officials said the village will bear the brunt of health and environmental impacts from Willow. Other “villages have some economic benefits from oil and gas activity, but have far less impact than Nuiqsut,” the letter states. “We are at ground zero for the industrialization of the Arctic.”
In addition, an explosion of online activism against Willow has appeared on TikTok in the past week – resulting in over a million letters being sent to the Biden administration against the project and over 2.8 million signatures on a Change.org petition to stop Willow .
According to the administration’s own estimates, the project would produce enough oil to release 9.2 million tons of global-warming carbon pollution annually — the equivalent of adding 2 million natural gas cars to the road.
“This is a huge threat to the climate and inconsistent with this administration’s promises to address the climate crisis,” Jeremy Lieb, a senior attorney at the Alaska-based environmental law group Earthjustice, told CNN. In addition to concerns about the rapidly warming Arctic, the groups also worry that the project could destroy the habitat of native species and change the migration patterns of animals, including caribou.
Willow’s backers, including Alaska lawmakers, pledge that the project will produce fossil fuels in a cleaner way than getting them from other countries, including Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.
“Because we don’t have access [oil] from a resource where we know our environmental record is second to none?’ Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said during a recent press conference.
Yes. During his 2020 campaign, Biden promised to end new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters — which he initially did as part of an early executive order.
However, the drilling freeze was halted by a federal judge in 2021, and the Biden administration has since opened up several areas for new drilling. Several of these new oil and gas drilling areas have been challenged in court by environmental groups.