What is the Willow Project?

Joe Biden faces a pivotal decision in his presidency as he prepares to announce a final verdict on the controversial Willow Project in the coming days. The project, which would be largest oil extraction project on federal land if approved, has been heavily criticised by climate groups.

What would the Willow Project look like?

The multibillion dollar is backed by the petroleum company ConocoPhillips and proposes drilling down on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope. Approval for the Willow Project was pressed through by the Trump government in its final days, but then faced litigation in court.

Originally, ConocoPhillips proposed five drilling sites – a number then whittled down to three by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM). However, the US Interior Department – which itself oversees the BLM – has expressed “substantial concerns” over both numbers, “including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”

In fact, by the Interior Department’s own figures, released in a February environmental review, the Willow Project is estimated to emit around 9.2 million metric tonnes of CO2 per year. Over its 30-year lifespan, that would add up to almost 280 million tonnes of greenhouse gas.  

Still, many Alaskan lawmakers and citizens are supportive of the project for the potential economic boost it would bring to the region. Alaskan Natives are divided – some are vehemently opposed, while others, like Nagruk Harcharek, say it will “provide income for the families on the North Slope.” Harcharek is the president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat.

What will Biden do?

The emissions figures are shocking, especially given the importance of climate policy to Biden’s political platform. During the 2020 election campaign, he promised to end new oil and gas drilling on federal lands, and he’s since committed to slashing carbon emissions in half by 2030.

Approving the Willow Project would be an immense blow to his climate credibility. “Rejecting a project like Willow should be a no-brainer for a climate leader like Biden,” says Lena Moffit, chief of staff at Evergreen Action. “And if he doesn’t, it’ll be a stain on his legacy.”

Karlin Nageak Itchoak, Senior Regional Director at the non-profit Wilderness Society, calls Willow “a carbon bomb that cannot be allowed to explode in the Arctic.” The Arctic is already warming almost four times as fast as the rest of the world

Awareness and outrage around the Willow Project has spread rapidly across social media as well.

There have been 50 million direct views of videos with the hashtag #StopWillow on Tik Tok alone in recent weeks. Online petitions like this one on Change.org have garnered over two million signatures. If Biden does approve the project, he risks alienating swaths of young voters ahead of the 2024 Presidential election.

And regardless of whether they approve it or not, the Biden administration is likely to face lawsuits. If the project is rejected, ConocoPhilips could seek legal action if the drill pad sites are reduced. On the other hand, the legal climate justice group Earthjustice has been preparing a case against the government should the project be approved.

The Biden administration has tried to compromise with critics by offering more protections for wildlife habitat elsewhere in the state, and considering reducing drill sites down to two. But most agree it isn’t enough. Senior attorney for Earthjustice, Jeremy Lieb: “We and our clients don’t see any acceptable version of this project,” says Earthjustice senior attorney, Jeremy Lieb.

A final decision is expected within the week, as early as Monday.

Cover photo by Joris Beugels on Unsplash.

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