The Biden administration has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent by 2030—the most ambitious climate goal of any U.S. president. To get there, the administration has taken a whole-of-government approach, including pledging to vastly expand renewable energy development on public lands and waters.
But a single oil lease in the Alaskan Arctic threatens to negate all of that promised progress on renewables. ConocoPhilips’ Willow oil drilling project is estimated to extract more than 160,000 barrels of oil per day for the next 30 years, which a Center for American Progress analysis finds would dwarf the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by fulfilling President Joe Biden’s 2030 commitments on renewables on public lands and waters.
The Willow project was originally approved after being rushed through in the final months of the Trump administration. Initially defended in court by the current administration, a federal judge in Alaska rightfully struck down the Trump administration’s approval of the project, citing “serious errors” with the environmental review. The court found that the review contained inaccurate and inadequate analysis of climate impacts—the same legal basis that saw a recent Gulf of Mexico lease sale overturned—along with major flaws in the consideration of effects on polar bears and of less harmful plan alternatives.
Million metric tons of carbon dioxide that could be produced by burning Willow project oil
The fate of the project now lies with the Biden administration, which is charged with conducting a supplemental environmental analysis—including meaningful consideration of the climate impacts—to determine if the project can proceed. As the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) engages the public and conducts a thorough and science-based review of impacts and alternatives, the only clear decision will be to reject ConocoPhillips’ request for permits and block this catastrophic project.
A carbon disaster
The Willow project is almost laughably incompatible with the climate goals and international obligations made by the Biden administration. The ConocoPhillips project would lock in oil infrastructure for at least the next three decades, and plans call for 250 wells, 37 miles of roads, 386 miles of pipelines, airstrips, and a new central processing facility to be built in the remote Arctic.
The Willow project would erase the forward progress on renewable energy that President Biden has promised on public lands and waters by 2030.
The proposal for development would pump more than 500 million barrels of oil from a fragile and rapidly warming ecosystem over the next 30 years. Burning its oil would produce more than 260 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide—equal to the annual output of nearly one-third of U.S. coal power plants.
To further put this potential carbon disaster into context, the Willow project would essentially erase the forward progress on renewable energy that President Biden has promised on public lands and waters by 2030. A CAP analysis finds that the carbon emissions expected from Willow would negate the estimated 129 MMT of carbon emissions avoided by reaching the president’s goals of deploying 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind energy by 2030 and permitting 25 GW of solar, onshore wind, and geothermal energy on public lands by 2025.* Put another way, allowing the Willow project to proceed would result in double the carbon pollution that all renewable progress on public lands and waters would save by 2030.
With temperatures rising in Arctic Alaska at three times the rate of the rest of the planet, the effects of climate change are already dire for Arctic communities. The Arctic is currently experiencing destabilizing on-the-ground effects, including sea ice melt and sea level rise; the loss of food access and food sources; and infrastructure damage and loss due to permafrost thaw and coastal erosion. Even the Willow project would be subject to the expensive and dangerous effects of climate change: ConocoPhillips plans to install artificial “chillers” to refreeze the Arctic’s melting permafrost in order to build the infrastructure needed to drill for oil.
BLM is obligated to consider all the known direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of this proposal, including those that affect the climate. To align the U.S. energy program with climate risks, the Biden administration must urgently deploy clean energy, while freezing the footprint of dirty energy on U.S. public lands and waters. The opportunity—and necessity—to reject the Willow proposal could not be clearer.
Climate is just the tip of Willow’s iceberg of problems
While the courts struck down the Willow project’s approval primarily for its failure to account for climate impacts, that is far from the only problem with the project’s environmental review. In addition to pumping oil, the Willow project would include massive amounts of built infrastructure that threatens Arctic communities, wildlife, and ecology—and threatens to lock in decades of drilling. As BLM reevaluates the project, it should reconsider the project as a whole, rather than limit its review to the deficiencies identified by the court.
Public health and environmental justice
The planned Willow project lies about 36 miles from the mostly-Indigenous village of Nuiqsut, where some residents say the industry is threatening their way of life. Residents of the area, which is already surrounded by oil development, have spoken out about oil flares at night, fumes, and pollution from development contributing to respiratory illness and other sickness.
For many, the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, where the Willow project is located, is not just an oil reserve. The area has long been important for Indigenous people, and the area near Willow consists of crucial subsistence hunting grounds for Alaska Native communities.
Wildlife and special places
The Western Arctic is a key habitat for multitudes of iconic Arctic species such as caribou, migratory birds, and polar bears, and the Willow project puts some of its most important habitats at risk. The Teshekpuk Lake Special Area in particular teems with sensitive wildlife and has been protected for decades because of its ecological values. The Teshekpuk caribou herd, which relies on areas around the lake for calving and insect relief, is an important subsistence resource for Alaska Native communities in the region. Similarly, the Colville River Special Area provides important nesting habitat for raptors and other birds, and it is an area of subsistence activities for local communities.
Locking in decades of bad decisions
Until very recently, there was no oil production at all in the Western Arctic due to its remote location, the lack of infrastructure, and the failure of companies to find significant amounts of oil. But the Willow project alone could alter that reality and entrench operations in the area for decades. The oil infrastructure investments that the project would bring—such as pipelines, processing facilities, gravel pits, gravel roads, and fuel barges—would enable future development and new exploration on lands previously too costly or otherwise inaccessible to the oil industry. The 23 million-acre Western Arctic is estimated to house more than 16 billion tons of carbon—more than double the emissions of burning all the oil that the Keystone XL pipeline would have carried over its 50-year lifespan. Now is the time to invest in the energy transition to benefit communities around the country, not lock in infrastructure that is incompatible with the future.
Simply put, the Willow project is a climate disaster in waiting. The Biden administration must recognize that Willow is incongruent with its own climate and conservation goals and that the result of this project will have a defining effect on the president’s environmental and climate legacy. The Biden administration must prioritize meaningful tribal consultation, 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, Christian Rodriguez, Corinne Muller, Mathew Brady, and Bill Rapp for their contributions to this column.
*Author’s note: Meeting the president’s commitment to deploy 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030 would avoid 78 MMT of CO2. To estimate the avoided emissions of President Biden’s 25 GW onshore goal, the author used data from The Wilderness Society that assumes continued progress on that goal could reach 30 GW by 2030 and avoid 31 to 51 MMT of CO2 by 2030. Using the high end of that estimate puts the combined avoided emissions by 2030 at 129 MMT of CO2.