The Willow project: oil drilling plan in Alaska’s North Scope

by Navaneeth Dontuboyina (’24) | March 31, 2023

Art by Vanessa Ko (’24)

Just a few weeks ago on March 13, 2023, millions of Americans erupted in dismay when the Biden administration approved the Willow project, an oil drilling plan across Alaska’s North Slope. What was once the federal National Petroleum Reserve will be transferred to private conglomerate hands. Alaskans as well as millions of others from across the nation expressed their outrage by signing a petition in opposition to the Willow project, which has accumulated more than five million signatures at the time of this article’s publication. So what exactly will the Willow project do to the surrounding environment, what standard does it set for environmental policy, and how does that relate to the outrage?

The Willow project is a decade-long proposal by the Houston-based ConocoPhillips, a hydrocarbon exploration and production company. The company’s plans had already been approved and had begun two other oil drilling projects in the same area before Willow, but this current proposal is the most extensive by far. In 2020, the Bureau of Land Management passed the development of the Willow project, and after two years of ensuing court cases and support from the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, it received presidential approval. The project plans to extract oil using five drill pads for 250 oil wells and complementary infrastructure like infield roads, gravel mines, airstrips, and even a temporary island for transportation by sealift. So how does all of this industrialization in a former natural reserve affect the surrounding wildlife and native populations?

Jeremy Lieb, an attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice, answers such a question with direct, extreme warning: “This is a huge climate threat.” In order for the Willow project to extract 576 million barrels of oil from the North Slope over thirty years per the proposal, it would have to release anywhere between 9.2 and 239 million tons of CO2, according to estimates. 

The local Arctic wildlife are also at risk of disruption and, in some cases, extinction. “The Willow project raises a number of serious issues, including impacts to migrating caribou, anadromous fish, [and] nesting yellow-billed loons,” iterated Natalia Dawson, a conservationist studying Alaskan wildlife, back in 2019 when the project was first introduced into the political sphere. Caribou will not be able to access the Teshekpuk Lake near the drilling site to hide from mosquitoes in the summer. Polar bears will be forced to move closer to shore with even fewer seals to hunt, which increases the danger of the species’s extinction. However, there is a case to be made by Willow representatives that harvesting from Alaska is comparatively cleaner and more efficient than outsourcing from other countries from the Middle East or Central America. Regardless, environmentalists’ criticism of the project and its environmental impact continues to increase.

The pushback to delay the commencement of drilling and desperately dismantle the proposal has been virulent. CNN reported that Earthjustice is planning to file a complaint against the Willow project on the grounds that the Biden administration’s approval is illegitimate due to its hypocrisy, as it promised to conserve Alaska’s natural landscape. If this complaint and many others can hold off construction past winter, ConocoPhillips will have to wait another whole winter in order to use the ice roads that freeze over but are necessary for starting the project. In any case, the delay may provide time for lawmakers to realize the weight of the environmental impact of the Willow project as well as the precedent it sets for America’s neglect of climate change in the face of profits.

Categories: Science

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