Biden’s Willow Project approval is a betrayal

The project threatens the climate, Indigenous people and future generations


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Biden’s approval of a drilling site in Alaska comes just over three years after he promised that his administration would not allow more drilling in a debate.

Ashlyn Segler, Staff Columnist

Just more than three years ago at a Democratic presidential primary debate in 2020, Joe Biden’s campaign promises appealed to a demographic of climate-conscious constituents. His stance was clear: “No more drilling on federal lands, no more drilling, including offshore, no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill. Period.” 

Yet on March 13, 2023, the Biden administration officially approved one of the largest-ever oil drilling projects on federal land. 

ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, called a “global carbon bomb,” is a massive oil drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. The $8 billion project is expected to produce nearly 600 million barrels of oil from the North Slope of Alaska, an area already experiencing warming at a rate nearly four times that of the rest of the globe. 

Once extracted, the project will generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution. That’s equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the road for a year, and it would take 150 million tree seedlings 10 years to grow to successfully sequester that amount of carbon pollution out of our atmosphere. 

In addition to the ominous impact the Willow project will pose to the climate, the project also threatens the immediate environment surrounding the venture. Alaska’s North Slope is a key habitat for polar bear populations, caribou migration and vulnerable waterfowl like the yellow-billed loon. The project, however, will disrupt vital ecosystems and fragment habitats through the construction of hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, an airstrip, an operations center and a processing facility. 

The influence of the Willow Project will linger long past whenever the last drop of oil is extracted, with no group suffering as much as the local community surrounding the venture. The city and Native Village of Nuiqsut, located just a short 30 miles away from the project, will likely facechemical pollution from spills and leaks, noise and light pollution from construction, scheduled blasts and air traffic.” Indigenous food sovereignty will also be threatened as local ecosystems and species suffer alongside the community. 

The influence of the Willow Project will linger long past whenever the last drop of oil is extracted.

The Biden Administration’s approval to greenlight the Willow Project is a betrayal not only to the climate, the immediate environment and the local community but also to the generations forced to inherit a world still hooked on fossil fuels. This addiction will cost us far more than anything an oil project could generate, as the impacts of the climate change intensity. 

Hotter temperatures, devastating droughts, severe storms, biodiversity loss, rising sea levels, food shortages and poverty exacerbated by climate change will ravage life as we know it — but while we still have time to mitigate the consequences, the Biden administration is signing away our future. 

Where Biden once enticed young voters with promises of a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050, those same constituents are now responsible for the unwelcome inheritance of a precious planet burning alive and suffocating from carbon emissions. 

Opposition to the project was amplified through the work of environmental organizations, the Nuiqsut people and online activists on TikTok. Videos with the #StopWillow hashtag amassed more than 50 million views since the first video by Generation Z activist Elish Joshi went viral in early February. One petition received more than 4 million signatures in protest of the project. 

Supporters of the project, including Alaskan lawmakers and a coalition of Alaskan Native groups on the North Slope, boast the project’s potential to lessen foreign dependence on oil and provide a source of income to the region to fund services like education and health care. 

However, it’s important to note in an economic analysis, the Willow Project won’t even produce its first barrels until 2028 or 2029, and it will take even longer to produce at full capacity. According to the Grist, a non-profit media organization focused on climate solutions, the global oil landscape may likely look very different by then, with new drilling projects such as those in Guyana providing new sources to Western countries. Moreover, the oil the Willow Project will produce is not a direct chemical substitute for oil imported from foreign sources in Russia and Venezuela. 

Because the Alaskan oil will still need to be blended with foreign oil to be suitable for domestic refineries, our foreign dependence will persist. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s own analysis reported that only around half of the oil produced from the project will replace foreign imports. 

Additionally, it’s unlikely the project will produce the kind of benefits that lawmakers promised. Grist again reports that the project is unlikely to revive the economic security oil once provided for the state. Alaska will likely suffer a six percent decrease in overall revenue through 2025, and the state will not become “cash flow positive” until 2035, according to a report from the Alaska Department of Revenue. 

In a last effort for protection, a coalition of environmental and Indigenous groups are suing the Biden administration in federal court. The group, consisting of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, Environment America, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, claim that the president’s approval fails to adequately consider the project’s impact on climate, Indigenous food sovereignty and local wildlife. 

The Biden administration had legal authority to stop the Willow Project and still ultimately neglected an obligation to uphold climate campaign promises. The Willow Project prolongs an economy governed by exploitation and further delays a just transition to a regenerative economy. It compromises the health and wellbeing of people and the planet. It compromises the hopes of a generation who voted on behalf of the climate. 

The courts now possess one last opportunity to curb enormous carbon pollution and protect entire communities and ecosystems. The fate of our future hinges on the court’s decision to uphold an environmental and moral duty to protect the Earth and generations to come. 

If we want to preserve a future on this planet, we must stop the Willow Project and defuse the carbon bomb ignited by the betrayal of the Biden administration.