The state of Alaska turning gray filled with wilting, sad wildflowers. The Willow Project will have irreversible effects on Alaskan ecosystems and communities. Illustration by Hannah Nellen.

On Monday, March 13 the Biden Administration officially approved the Willow Project, a massive $8 billion oil drilling project led by oil giant ConocoPhillips. The project plans to extract millions of barrels of oil from Alaska’s fragile western Arctic area. The decision came after months of public opposition by environmental activists around the world, due to the irreversible environmental impacts and destruction to the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska that the project would cause.

ConocoPhillips Willow is a decades-long drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope in the Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government. ConocoPhillips is a Houston-based energy company that has been exploring and drilling for oil in Alaska since 2000. It is the only company that has active oil drilling operations in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, though its two operating projects are smaller than Willow is planned to be. Willow was proposed by ConocoPhillips and originally approved by the Trump administration in 2020, initially approved to construct five drill pads, which the Biden administration ultimately reduced to three in 2023. The three pads will allow the company to drill about 90% of the oil they are pursuing in the area. Now that the Biden administration has given the Willow project the green-light, construction can begin, yet it is unclear exactly when it will due to prevelate legal challenges and pushback against the project.

During the 2020 presidential election, Biden promised to prevent new oil and gas drilling on federal land, a vow that many feel has been broken by the approval of Willow. Conoco has existing and valid leases in the area, making it difficult for courts to fully reject or drastically reduce the project. If they had pursued those options, they could have faced steep fines in addition to legal action from ConocoPhillips. 

On Thursday, March 16, White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre held a White House Press Briefing to address the Willow Project. Jean-Pierre stated the limitations of legal contracts, saying that “some of the company’s leases are decades old, granted by prior administrations, the company has a legal right to those leases.” Jean-Pierre also commented that “again, the President is delivering the most aggressive climate agenda in the U.S history and that is going to be his continued commitment to the American people.” When questioned about the President’s promise that there would be no new drilling licenses issued on private land on the Late Late Show with Stephen Colbert on March 16, Vice President Kamala Harris responded, “when you look at what our administration has done it’s historic… we must live up to our role in terms of our ability to invest in the future, create jobs and reduce greenhouse gases.” When asked about the controversy around approving the Willow Project, Vice President Harris stated that “the concerns are based on what we should all be concerned about, but the solutions have to be and include what we are doing in terms of going forward, in terms of investment.”

It is estimated by the Interior Department Bureau of Land Management that the Willow Project will produce 576 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years. Bringing up a long debate that many politicians and the climate movement have been divided on, what matters more? Would cutting fossil fuel demands by encouraging consumers towards renewable energy and electric vehicles help? Or decreasing the supply by preventing oil and gas drilling in the United States? The environmental benefits of decreasing our fossil fuel usage are obvious, yet many argue that if the United States were to cease its drilling of gas and oil, it would only increase demands and other countries would start producing even more due to the demand of the global oil market. Activists and opponents alike have referred to the project as a “carbon bomb;” according to a federal analysis released last month, the project would produce around 277 million metric tons of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, about 9.2 million per year. 

The emission of greenhouse gasses into the climate has caused severe changes to the earth’s atmosphere, such as the rapid melting of icebergs in the arctic ocean. Megan Whisnand, the AP Environmental Science teacher at Franklin High School, strongly explains why the Alaskan climate is already at high risk, stating that “the rate of the warming we are seeing in the Arctic is way greater than anywhere else […] the plants and animals in the region have specifically adapted and evolved to the cold habitat and can’t survive without it.” 

One aspect of the Willow Project that is not widely known is that ConocoPhillips plans to install “chillers” in the ground alongside the extractive infrastructure to manage permafrost melt and keep its drill rigs upright. In layman’s terms: ConocoPhillips will be incorporating underground freezer systems into its development to make sure the ground beneath the site stays solid, due to the rapid warming of the arctic and northern regions. “Oil reserves fluctuate based on the technology, so maybe they do have 30 or more years of drilling, but when the ice melts even more they won’t be able to drill. This is a reason to stop,” Whisnand says. The warming of the Arctic is not only affecting the wildlife, but also the livelihood of many Alaskans. 

ConocoPhillips plans on creating thousands of jobs for Alaskans, although their opponents argue that it should be halted over its significant climate and wildlife impacts along with the impacts to the local community. The state’s lawmakers say the project will create jobs, boost domestic energy production and lessen the country’s reliance on foreign oil. All three lawmakers in Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation met with President Joe Biden and his senior advisers on March 3, urging the president and his administration to approve the project. Whisnand argues that although the project would bring economic growth to the area, it is not worth the destruction it will cause, saying that “a lot of those jobs and opportunities are short lived due to the nature of drilling, along with the irreversible damage it will cause.” 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 for local residents. Other Alaska Natives living closer to the planned project, including city officials and tribal members in the Native village of Nuiqsut, are deeply concerned about the health and environmental impacts of a major oil development. A surge of online activism against Willow has emerged on TikTok and many other social media platforms. 

Numerous studies have shown that in order to avoid a climate disaster, humans must rapidly decrease fossil fuel emissions. “We not only need to start reducing our carbon emissions, but we need to be actively drawing down emissions that are already in the atmosphere,” Whisnand says. Although the Willow Project has been approved, there are many things citizens can do, like spreading the word and educating ourselves and others around us, while trying to reduce our carbon footprints. “We just have to focus on the solutions and work towards a better future,” says Whisnand.

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