Is Biden Sacrificing America’s Willow Trees for the Willow Project?

Is Biden Sacrificing America’s Willow Trees for the Willow Project?

After promising to consciously limit carbon emissions, President Biden just approved an oil drilling project that will release more than 10 million metric tons of CO2 a year.

May 2, 2023

On March 13, President Biden—widely-regarded as America’s first “climate president”—approved the Willow Project, the largest oil drilling project in decades, which would allow for an $8 billion initiative to drill in the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A) in Alaska. 

The Willow Project is a proposal by Alaska’s largest crude oil producer: ConocoPhillips. In its original state, the plan would authorize the National Petroleum Reserve’s 23 million acres to be set aside for oil exploration and hydraulic fracturing. A report by the Bureau of Land Management estimated that the project would produce around 576 million barrels of oil over its 30 year lifespan. At its peak, Willow could pump out up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, which equates to 1.5% of all U.S oil produced daily.

However, the National Petroleum Reserve is America’s single largest expanse of untouched wilderness, a haven for countless Alaskan flora and fauna—including caribou, polar bears, and 90 different species of birds. Approving such a large drilling project could threaten the existence of all of these creatures and their habitats. As many are already designated vulnerable or endangered, active decisions to further jeopardize their remaining populations come under great public scrutiny and disapproval. 

So, instead of approving the full project, the Department of the Interior allowed for a scaled-down version—which denies ConocoPhillips access to 2 of the 5 drilling zones within the NPR-A, but will still produce roughly 575 million barrels of oil in the course of the next thirty years. 

Scaling down the project is extremely significant, as ConocoPhillips has held lease rights in the Alaskan region since the 1990s, which act as binding agreements. So, should the Biden Administration have denied the corporation access to drill, ConocoPhillips would have legal grounds to sue the federal government and gain access to drill in the entire expanse.

No more drilling on federal lands, period, period, period

— Joe Biden while campaigning in 2020

Nevertheless, Biden’s move to approve the project greatly contrasts the otherwise “climate-first” platform on which he campaigned. In fact, while campaigning for president in early 2020, Biden declared there would be “No more drilling on federal lands, period, period, period.” He went as far as to state that it is “a disaster” to drill for oil in the Arctic. As a result, Biden was the target of mass negative publicity in the days following his decision. 

Since the approval was released, more than 1 million letters have been written to the White House expressing mass public outrage, and a petition protesting the decision has reached more than 5 million signatures. America’s environmental advocates have also pledged to challenge this decision in court—including environmental law group, Earthjustice.

The White House itself has estimated that the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution a year—which is equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to America’s roads. So, it isn’t unexpected to see severe disapproval when President Biden—someone who called rising temperatures an “existential threat to humanity”—acknowledged these consequences and at the same time continued with his decision to allow the project’s continuation. 

Yet, the outrage isn’t universal. Many populations and political groups within both the continental U.S and Alaska have expressed support for the Willow Project. Republican Senator from Alaska Dan Sullivan said the development could be “one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in… the state’s history.” 

one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in… [the] state’s history.

— Senator Dan Sullivan, R-AK

Additionally, there appears to be widespread approval from Native populations throughout the Alaskan North Slope. As, ​​Nagruk Harcharek, president of the group “Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat”—whose members include leaders from across the North Slope—said there is “majority consensus” in the region in favor of the Willow Project. 

But, in response to mass public dissent—and as a way to offset the environmental implications of the Willow Project—the Biden Administration also passed legislation to make the entire US Arctic Ocean off limits to future oil and gas leasing. In the coming weeks, President Biden will move to protect up to 16 million acres from future fossil fuel leasing, which appear to be steps in the right direction to address the ever-present consequences of climate change. 

As of today, the ultimate environmental harms of the Willow Project still hang in the balance, as a federal judge just denied an injunction to block the Alaskan drilling initiative. 

So, it remains to be seen whether President Biden will stand by his previous statements and hold true to his promise to end federal oil drilling—or whether he’ll shift his ideology along with the changing political sphere and continue his support for both the Willow Project and future fracking initiatives.

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