With elevated global energy prices as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, opportunistic politicians, pundits, and trade associations have called for an increase in domestic oil and gas development. In particular, proponents of the Willow oil drilling project—a massive Arctic drilling proposal from ConocoPhillips—are citing “inflation, high energy costs, [and] the need for energy security” as reasons to approve the project.
These arguments are false. The United States currently produces more than twice as many barrels of oil per day as it produced in 2008 and is exporting record amounts of oil to other countries. The Willow project would be an especially poor solution for high energy costs. In fact, it is a climate disaster in the making: By investing in a dirty energy future and contributing to climate change, devastating Alaska and the rest of the world, the project threatens to make everything more expensive.
This column provides the top five reasons that the Willow project would fail to lower gas prices or provide a tangible benefit to anyone but ConocoPhillips. The project is currently undergoing a final review and decision by the Biden administration after releasing a draft supplemental environmental analysis in June. President Joe Biden must reject this project to protect against climate change and ensure that the United States is investing in energy systems that benefit everyone—not just Big Oil.
By investing in a dirty energy future and contributing to climate change, devastating Alaska and the rest of the world, the Willow project threatens to make everything more expensive.
1. The Willow project will not go into production for at least 6 years
Proponents of the Willow oil drilling project have argued that the project would help short-term global energy markets and offset high gas prices. But ConocoPhillips’ own projections show that oil production from the Willow project would not occur for at least six years or more following its approval.
The project would lock in oil infrastructure for at least the next three decades at a time when the world’s scientists are calling for the United States—and the world—to urgently move off of fossil fuels. With a minimum six-year timeline, the project would only move the country further from a clean energy future, while doing nothing for the current price of gas. Approval of this project—particularly on ConocoPhillips’ accelerated timeline—will not help people struggling with the price of gas today.
2. The project helps line ConocoPhillips’ pockets without helping consumers or locals
While consumers have been struggling with inflation and the price of energy, oil and gas executives have been raking in record profits. ConocoPhillips is not immune from this windfall. Their profits from the third quarter of 2022 alone totaled $4.6 billion, putting them at a whopping $14 billion in profits so far for the year—75 percent higher than what they brought in during all of 2021.
Moreover, ConocoPhillips is not reinvesting these profits locally, but diverting them to wealthy shareholders and executives. The company has so far funneled almost $10 billion into stock buybacks and cash dividends for wealthy investors. Last year, ConocoPhillips’ CEO made almost $24 million.
ConocoPhillips made more money in Alaska than the local and state governments are estimated to gain from taxes on 30 years of drilling at Willow.
ConocoPhillips stands to increase profits even more by expanding its dirty energy footprint in Alaska. Last year alone, ConocoPhillips made more money in Alaska—$1.4 billion—than the local and state governments are estimated to gain from taxes on 30 years of drilling at Willow. The nearby village of Nuiqsut has received only an average of $600,000 from drilling in the Western Arctic over the past 10 years, which is equivalent to what ConocoPhillips made this summer in Alaska in a little more than two hours.
3. The benefits to society are not worth the costs
The carbon emissions from the Willow project would cause $19.8 billion—potentially more—in climate change-related damages, compared with the meager $3.9 billion in new federal revenue that proponents claim will be generated by the project. Moreover, that estimate fails to account for the massive changes that are underway in the U.S. and world energy economy, including the trend toward renewable energy. As a result, proponents’ revenue projections are likely inflated.
Furthermore, there would likely be a substantial cost resulting from the loss of subsistence foods due to the Willow project. More than 70 percent of households in the local area use subsistence resources for more than half of their diet. The project would threaten these resources, and replacing them could cost more than $20,000 per household, in addition to the social and cultural losses that would result from losing access to subsistence.
4. The Willow project’s jobs promises are not what they seem
Promises of high-paying, local jobs made by supporters of the Willow project are overstated. Only 1 percent of employed Alaska North Slope residents work in the oil and gas industry, and most of the project’s jobs would be filled by people outside of Alaska. The Willow environmental analysis states that “[o]il field development projects in the North Slope typically require specialty tradesmen and construction workers … and these jobs are typically held by non-local workers.”
Studies also show that young people simply do not want to work in the oil and gas sector. The industry already faces hiring challenges because of the volatility of the field and because young people are not seeking jobs in the industry responsible for climate change.
5. The United States cannot drill its way to energy independence
The solution to high energy prices is a swift and urgent transition to clean energy—not further reliance on dirty fuels controlled by dictators and profiteering oil corporations. Continuing to invest in the same volatile fuel sources that are contributing to the current energy crisis—particularly those in the remote Western Arctic—is unjustifiable.
The United States is already the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, but these have not freed the country from price spikes because energy independence will not be found at the bottom of a well. For true energy independence, lower energy prices, and the public’s health and well-being, the United States must urgently invest in clean energy.
The Willow project is an investment in the economy of the past, threatens the climate, and would imperil the Arctic environment. No one but ConocoPhillips’ executives and wealthy shareholders stand to benefit from its approval. The Biden administration can prioritize environmental justice, climate action, and an equitable transition away from a fossil fuel-dependent economy by rejecting the Willow project.
The author would like to thank Nicole Gentile, Sam Zeno, Layla Hughes, and Christian Rodriguez for their contributions to this column.