Breaking the Ice

President Biden’s decision to greenlight the Willow Project has complex economic and environmental implications, trading off green energy efforts for greater energy independence.

March 13: in the White House, elected leaders, aides and experts all gathered over one issue–the Willow Project. Though no regular citizens had a say in the arguments, the powerful Americans made a game-changing decision. The approval of the Willow Project in Alaska will thrust us toward a climax in global warming, however, it also promises to improve America’s stability in oil and foreign relations. The issue is much more complicated than the headlines make it: while the U.S. owes it to future generations to prioritize climate change, there are promises for positive change that can’t go ignored. 

 Since its passing, the Biden administration received harsh criticism about the Willow Project. The 30-year venture aims to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day—about 1.5 percent of total US oil production, mostly sourced from the North Slope in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. According to the Bureau of Land Management, such efforts could warm Alaskan temperatures by 12 degrees by the end of the century, destroying habitats for native species and altering the migration patterns of animals. After watching videos of dying baby polar bears, my first instinct was to join the outcry against the project. My conscience screamed, “It’s just another evil scheme for corporations to make money while the future suffers!” However, the issue isn’t nearly that simple. 

ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest crude oil producer, proposed the Willow Project. The Alaskan slopes hold 600 million barrels of oil, and the state’s lawmakers say the project will create on-site jobs, boost domestic energy production, and lessen the country’s reliance on foreign oil. The hope is that gas and oil revenue will strengthen America’s markets and allow the nation to meet its needs during energy crises. 

 The Willow Project will give the U.S. energy security so that in the future we can move to renewable energy sources. The biggest hurdles while eliminating fossil fuels are economics and logistics. The Willow Project gives us stability in both areas so we are more equipped to transition. 

A coalition of Alaska Natives called the Arctic Slope Native Association (ASNA) also supports the project, saying it could be a much-needed new source of revenue for the region and fund services including education and health care. The drilling on the slopes will stimulate the job market. With a stronger economy, Alaska can get more funding from the federal government to subsidize socioeconomic programs. 

These ideas disintegrate under the scrutiny of environmentalists, who are calling the venture a “carbon bomb.” Willow going forward would create about 70 million metric  tons of additional carbon dioxide in U.S. emissions, and another 60 million tons internationally. The consequences of climate change will worsen and increase rapidly, with Alaskan biodiversity first at risk. 

With the approval of the Willow Project, environmental activists like Earthjustice have accused President Biden of breaking his campaign promise to lower greenhouse gas emissions and ban oil drilling on federal land. After promising to be a climate-conscious president, it looks like this project is a betrayal. In their defense, data by the Biden administration says that 50% of Willow’s net emissions could be offset by planting more trees in national forests to capture and store carbon dioxide. Reforestation work on federal lands was something the administration already anticipated to accommodate to meet its broader climate goals. 

Another countermeasure to the environmental impacts of oil drilling is the Inflation Reduction Act, signed concurrently with Willow’s approval. This is a double-edged sword: it outlines billions of dollars worth of tax credits to help transition away from fossil fuels (win) but includes a stipulation that millions of acres of federal land be auctioned off for oil and gas drilling to provide more fossil fuels (completely counterproductive). The latter stipulation was written under partisan pressure, which makes it an ironic way to counter the effects of the Willow project.  Ideally, the budget will be reevaluated to pledge more toward environmental preservation as the Willow Project begins to yield results, which is a possible (though far-reaching) hope. 

Something that the headlines tend to omit is that even if Biden had disapproved of the project, ConocoPhillips’ pre-existing lease on the Alaskan land would give them grounds to sue the federal government, costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars. With rising inflation prices and anticipating further outrage from the public, it’s easier to see how Biden’s hands were tied–even if we do have to live with the consequences. 

No matter what, the drilling happens. All we can do is fight for a greener future–some other way.