Willow Project: Environmental Disaster or Economic Boost?

Willow Project: Environmental Disaster or Economic Boost?

Bryan Dozier

Nandita Bussa, Staff Writer

The Willow Project, founded by independent oil company ConocoPhillips, was approved on March 13th this year by the Biden administration. They plan to operate up to five oil drill pads, totaling 250 oil wells, in the Alaskan North Slope. 

The planning of the project began in 1999 once ConocoPhillips first acquired the right to drill in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska during the Clinton administration. They began the development permit process in 2018, where the project has undergone five years of analysis to determine its environmental impacts, before finally being approved in 2023. 

The case moved to the Biden administration in 2022 after their approval of the drilling of the Peregrine discovery area. Since ConocoPhillips had the right to drill, canceling its leases would make the federal government liable. If the company filed a court case and won, it would cost the government millions of dollars in fees and ConocoPhillips would have free rein to drill. Ultimately, the government and company agreed to reduce the original proposal to three oil pads, allowing the company to drill about 90% of the oil they are pursuing.  

With the approval of this project, activists point out Biden’s inconsistency with his campaign platform geared towards halting new oil and gas development on federal lands. Environmental organizations have called the project a “carbon bomb” and view the approval as blatant ignorance to the ecological conservation promise Biden made on the stand two years ago. 

Ecologists cite an older government estimate to argue that the Willow Project would release 287 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually, as reported by the Bureau of Land Management and Evergreen Action, which is the same amount of greenhouse gasses half a million homes would release annually. 

“This is a huge climate threat and inconsistent with this administration’s promises to take on the climate crisis,” in an interview with CNN. “In addition to concerns about a fast-warming Arctic, groups are also concerned the project could destroy habitat for native species and alter the migration patterns of animals including caribou.”

However, support for the project remains strong since political figures, such as Alaskan Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, advocate for the initiative to proceed as it will “create jobs, boost domestic energy production, and lessen the country’s reliance on foreign oil.” The project could produce up to 130,000 barrels per day at its peak, supporting Alaska’s decreasing oil production and boosting federal revenue. Opposition to the project has not backed down though, as environmental and Indigenous groups have already sued over the recent approval. Earthjustice and law firm Trustees for Alaska have filed lawsuits to federal agencies as well. With over a million letters written to the White House in protest and more than five million signatures on a change.org petition, environmentalists are hopeful for change.