The Biden administration’s approval of the Willow oil and gas project on Alaska’s North Slope could commit the U.S. to a 30-year project that will produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to more than 1.7 million passenger cars each year.
The lengthy commitment has rankled environmental groups, who see the project as a broken promise and a decadeslong investment in fossil fuels at the same time scientists warn global emissions must decline sharply.
“President Biden’s decision to approve Willow betrays his campaign promises and the millions of young voters who supported him,” Aaditi Lele, the policy director of the youth-led activist organization Zero Hour, said in a statement. “Drilling for new oil and gas is incompatible with the magnitude of the crisis we face.”
The decision about the project, which in recent months has become the subject of growing backlash on social media, almost single-handedly calls into question whether the Biden administration’s broader climate efforts will meet the goals set by international organizations, which are seen as essential to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It also shows how geopolitical forces are challenging the administration’s ability to abruptly shift away from fossil fuels.
Kristen Miller, the executive director of the nonprofit Alaska Wilderness League, said greenlighting the oil and gas venture is antithetical to the aggressive action needed to slash emissions.
“This decision is a huge step backward,” she said. “The way we manage our public lands for oil and gas has got to be a significant part of the way we address the climate crisis, and America’s Arctic has to be place number one where this is addressed.”
The decision grants the oil producer ConocoPhillips access to three drilling sites on federal land for nearly 200 wells, according to a decision document from the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Interior Department. Over the life of the project, the federal government expects the company to produce about 576 million barrels of oil, which, if burned, would produce the equivalent of about 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution, the document says.
“It’s going to rank among the largest projects in the United States when it’s done,” said Michael Lazarus, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute U.S., adding that the project’s yearly greenhouse gas pollution would be roughly equivalent to 10% of all the emissions produced in Washington state every year.
There’s also concern that the Willow project could be just the start. Construction of oil facilities and roads in that part of Alaska’s North Slope paves the way for future projects.
“The development of this project will result in the construction of a good amount of infrastructure in a remote part of Alaska,” said Michael Burger, the executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, making additional drilling projects more feasible.
The Biden administration’s goal is to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — a goal of the Paris Agreement — scientists with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said global emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest and decline by 43% by 2030.
The Biden administration said it reduced the size of the project by denying two of five proposed drilling sites, and a source familiar with the decision said the White House did not believe it could legally prevent the project from going ahead.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the administration believes it can still hit its climate goals.
Lazarus said that the decision to allow the project to move forward could hinder the administration’s goals and that it exemplifies a pattern of governments' committing to more new fossil fuel infrastructure than global climate agreements should allow, a trend his organization documents in a yearly report.
“Governments are planning on producing twice as much fossil fuels as what would be consistent with 1.5 degrees and 50% more than 2 degrees,” Lazarus said, referring to global climate targets in Celsius. “We found the U.S. was one of the three countries — along with Saudi Arabia and Brazil — planning for the greatest increase of oil production from now until 2030.”
U.S. emissions increased by about 1.3% last year, although analysts expect them to fall as Biden’s signature climate policies in the Inflation Reduction Act begin to take effect.
Biden called for a halt to drilling on federal lands during the 2020 presidential campaign. But the war in Ukraine, inflation and high energy costs in some parts of the world have added pressure.
In a statement, ConocoPhillips touted the project’s economic benefits, saying it would provide up to $17 billion in new revenue for the federal government, Alaska and communities near the site.
“This was the right decision for Alaska and our nation,” said Ryan Lance, ConocoPhillips’ chairman and CEO, adding that it would create union jobs and benefit Alaska Native communities.
Alaska’s congressional delegation — Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola — have supported the project.
The Interior Department defended the Biden administration's climate policies in a statement, saying the administration has delivered "the most aggressive climate agenda in American history." Interior officials noted that BLM had scaled back ConocoPhillips' plans by reducing the number of areas where it could drill, that the company had acquired its oil and gas leases in the 1990s and that the company will relinquish rights to drill in other sensitive areas as the project moves forward. The department also pointed to the recent announcement that it placed millions of acres of environmentally critical areas in Alaska off limits to oil and gas leasing.
The federal decision will almost certainly face legal challenges. An attorney for Earthjustice, a major environmental law nonprofit group, indicated the group could sue.
“Litigation is very likely,” Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said. “It does not look like Interior has fixed the myriad legal flaws that Earthjustice and others identified for the agency prior to its decision.”
Backlash against the Willow project circulated widely, especially on social media. “Willow” spent days as a trending topic on TikTok, and videos criticizing the project got hundreds of millions of views across various social media platforms.
“It shows how much concern our young climate voters feel about climate change,” said Miller, of the Alaska Wilderness League, “and how they react to real threats to the climate and how they react to what they see as real change.”