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What you need to know about the Willow Project

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Elissa Knowles discusses the recent approval of the Willow Project and the serious consequences it may have on our planet.

On March 13th 2023, the Biden Administration approved the Willow Project, a decision which may have devastating effects for both global climate change and the local environment in Northern Alaska. This oil-drilling operation could potentially see 180,000 barrels of oil removed from the National Petroleum Reserve every day for 30 years. Not only will indigenous groups and habitats suffer, but the burning of these fossil fuels would pollute the atmosphere with 9.2 million metric tons of C02 each year, equal to running 2.2 million new petrol cars. With such obviously destructive effects, many people are wondering how such a project was not only proposed, but also approved by a Government that made promises to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030. Here I will discuss the ongoing fight surrounding this decision, and what we can do to help.


Image Credit: Noel_Bauza


The Willow Project was first proposed by ConocoPhillips to the Trump Administration back in 2017, where it was later approved by the same administration in 2020. The Biden Administration took office in the White House in 2021 and 2 years later, despite promises to go greener, have approved the very same proposal. This came as a shock to many: part of Biden’s campaign stated that he would end all new oil and gas drilling on federal lands, yet he has now given the green light for one of the biggest most high-profile oil drilling projects in history, letting down a large proportion of his young supporters who got him into office in the first place.


This decision has been made in spite of 6 million letters being written to the White House, and 4.5 million signatures gathered via change.org’s petition against the Willow Project; its powerful message reminds people that this project would emit more climate pollution than “99.7% of all single point sources in the country” each year. Larger organisations are also heavily involved in putting a stop to this irreversibly damaging undertaking. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, Sierra Club, Trustees for Alaska and the Alaska Wilderness League filed a lawsuit on Tuesday the 14th of March, meanwhile groups such as The Natural Resources Defence Council, Centre for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace are seeking injunctions. One company in particular, EarthJustice, are hoping to at least stall ConocoPhillips until the end of April (the end of Alaska’s winter season) with their lawsuits and injunctions; the project’s initial construction cannot commence outside of the winter season, as the company rely on sturdy ice roads to build their oil project, and thus may have to wait till next season. In the meantime, these institutions alongside millions of others will fight to have their voices heard in the hopes of change.


Image Credit: geralt


Government sources have attempted to defend Biden by explaining that the project has been scaled down over the last 6 years, decreasing from 5 to 3 drilling pads, and yet this reduction will still pour 260 million tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Government sources have also argued that any attempts to obstruct the Willow Project would have met the Biden Administration with boundless legal and financial issues, considering ConocoPhillips has valid leases in the Northern Slopes of Alaska. Others have claimed these conclusions are mistaken and baseless, while the environmental impacts of Willow have been wilfully ignored.

Those supporting the project advocate for the creation of jobs and revenue in the area, while the rest of the US would rely less on foreign oil and prices; ConocoPhillips claims that 2,500 short-term and 300 long-term jobs would benefit the native people, and the state would benefit from 8-17 billion dollars in revenue. It would cost $8 billion alone for the company to build, but that’s a small price to pay when you’re worth . These benefits are also, surprisingly, echoed by native Alaskan groups such as the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, who claim that opportunities for and investments in the community are very much welcome. In spite of this support, the majority of indigenous people continue to fight the proposal, suing Biden for his negligence toward their communities and local wildlife, such as waterfowl and caribou who are vital components of the native ecosystems.


Image Credit: 358611


So, what can we do? Although petitions and actions on social media can feel frustratingly small in comparison, in large numbers it can have enormous effects. Many activist groups urge people to stay informed and involved, which you can do so via organisations like Grounded who will email you updates on the matter. Companies such as Evergreen Action discuss how we can prevent projects like these from slipping through in the future. And websites like as.com discuss what you can do now to make a difference: write to the White House, contact advocacy groups, stay active on social media, keep updated on the project and instigate these important conversations. Donations to relevant causes are also of great importance; many small businesses have taken action by donating their proceeds to charities that help protect the local wildlife in Alaska. For example, izzyscrafteddesigns has launched a ‘Polar Bear Charity Box’ which sends £5 to the World Wildlife Fund, get your scrunchie, suncatcher and sticker here to help out – a little goes a long way.

Such action is just as pivotal now as it has always been. We are dangerously close to surpassing the 1.5 Celsius mark that experts state clearly is the maximum global temperature we can reach before enduring irreversible climate change. Temperatures must be sustained below 1.5 Celsius, and we must reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. The Willow Project is in direct contradiction with that goal, and it therefore must be stopped. Revoking these large-scale plans has been done before, and it can be done again.


Image Credit: spalla67


About the Author: Elissa Knowles is a third-year Psychology Student at the University of York, loves taking care of her many (many) plants and hopes to go into environmental journalism.

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