The US government under President Joe Biden has given the "green light" to the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska. A document released today, Monday 13th, stated that the controversial plan will be carried out in a scaled-down version. The project was originally approved under the presidency of Donald Trump, but it was stopped by a court. Environmental organizations have been strongly opposed to the project until the end.
"Willow — set to become the largest new oil project on U.S. public lands — will also permanently alter the globally significant and ecologically rich Western Arctic by disrupting animal migration patterns, eroding precious habitat, harming subsistence practices, and posing unacceptable health risks for Alaska Natives."
What is the Willow Project?
The energy company ConocoPhillips had applied to build up to five drilling sites, dozens of miles of roads, seven bridges, and pipelines. However, in 2021, the Alaska District Court overturned the approved permit for the $7 billion project due to its environmental impact analysis and sent it back to the administration for reevaluation.
Today Biden's Interior Department approved a version of the project that would include 3 drill sites and less surface infrastructure than originally planned.
According to a report from the New York Times (NYT), the US Department of the Interior has now approved three drilling sites with a total of 199 drill holes in the federally-owned National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPRA). Two other drilling sites were rejected, including one that was apparently near a lake. In addition, the permit for building a road leading to the fourth drilling site was denied. The Interior Department says the reduced scope of the project would help to reduce its impact on habitats for species like polar bears and yellow-billed loons.
Despite the scaled-down version of the project, environmental organizations are still dissatisfied with the approval. They claim that even in its reduced state, the project contradicts the Biden administration's commitment to combat climate change and presents a danger to untouched wilderness areas.
The approval was not signed by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, but by her deputy Tommy Beaudreau. Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska, has close ties to the state's lawmakers. Haaland, on the other hand, did not comment on the project. As a congresswoman, she had already opposed the project.
ConocoPhillips is likely pleased with the decision, as they stated that they would need at least three drilling sites for the project to be financially viable. The company's CEO, Ryan Lance, said that it was "the right decision for Alaska and our country." With the new drilling, ConocoPhillips is expected to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day.
"ConocoPhillips has said the project would deliver up to $17 billion in revenue for federal and state governments and local Alaska communities."
During his 2020 presidential campaign, US President Biden pledged not to allow any new oil and gas drilling on federal land during his second term in office. However, Alaska lawmakers and other supporters of the "Willow" project had pushed for government approval. They argued that the multi-billion-dollar project would create thousands of jobs and contribute to US energy independence.
“Willow fits within the Biden Administration's priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security, all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities.”
ConocoPhillips expects to create 2,500 jobs during the construction phase and 300 jobs in the long term. Critics have warned that the project could be a "carbon bomb," adding significantly to global carbon emissions.
"Today the Biden administration has also been urging U.S. oil companies to invest in boosting production to help keep consumer energy prices in check."
What is its environmental impact of Willow?
Environmental organizations argue that the new drilling contradicts the fight against the climate crisis. Greenpeace, for example, emphasized that if approved, the "Willow" project would be the largest oil drilling project on federal land in the United States and called it a "CO2 bomb". Abigail Dillen of the environmental group Earth Justice criticized the new project as "undermining directly the new clean economy that the Biden administration has promised to advance".
Using the oil from Willow Project would produce the equivalent of more than 263 million tons of greenhouse gases over the project’s 30-year life. Almost equal to the combined emissions from 1.7 million passenger cars over the same period of time. It would have an almost 8% reduction in emissions compared with Houston-based ConocoPhillips’ favored approach.
In the last 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Arctic ecosystems are in turmoil, sea ice is disappearing, sea levels are rising, and the ground is thawing. Biden promised to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030, replace fossil fuels with solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources, and improve protection for public land and waters.
"Willow drilling project on Alaska's North Slope, which has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists and some Alaska Native communities, who say it will speed up the climate breakdown and undermine food security."
The US government limited oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean and banned development on 5.26 million hectares of land in the NPRA area, a day before approving the "Willow" project. This move is seen as compensation for the approval of the "Willow" project and protects an area that is home to grizzly and polar bears, caribou, and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.