Controversy caused by the Willow Project

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Another man breaking his promises, what’s new? As a presidential candidate in 2020, Joe Biden promised “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.” On March 13 of 2023, though, the Biden Administration approved an $8 billion oil drilling project. This switch up makes it hard to imagine the administration will ever fulfill its promise to reduce emissions from public lands. 

The Willow Project
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The Willow Project is located within the National Petroleum Reserve (around the size of the state of Indiana), about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is a massive oil drilling project started by Conocophillips, a Houston-based energy company, that has been drilling in Alaska for many years. The area where the project is located could produce nearly 600 million barrels of crude oil over the next 30 years, according to the Interior Department, which is why the company had been trying to gain approval for months.

The Willow Project’s plan is to extract 600 million barrels of oil from pristine federal land in Alaska, according to the New York Times

When did the project start? 

In 2017, Conocophillips, Alaska’s largest crude oil producer and largest owner of exploration leases, announced the Willow Project.

In 2020 Conocophillips proposed Project Willow to the Trump administration, who approved it. When initially approved, it allowed the company to build five drill pads.

Since the project’s approval back in 2020, it has stirred up controversy, and since being elected, the Biden administration has gone back and forth grappling with the choice of whether or not they should approve the project. The Biden Administration ultimately did decide to go through with approval on March 13 2023, but not without some push back. Conocophillips originally wanted to establish five oil sites, though the Biden administration approved just three of the potential oil sites in the Willow Project, reducing the need for additional construction of roads and pipelines.

Supporters of Project Willow
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Among the supporters of the project are Alaskan senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and many Native indigenous Alaskans. Nagruk Harcharek, the president of The Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat said to CNN that the project presents great economic benefits and better opportunities. 

“Without that money and revenue stream, we’re reliant on the state and the feds.”

Nagruk Harcharek

In addition, this massive project is expected to create around 2500 new jobs and generate billions of dollars in revenue. Without the project Alaska would rely on an unseemly amount of state and government funding. 

In short, those that support the project believe in the importance of creating  jobs and increasing the amount of oil production. Those who live off the land in Alaska rely on crude oil for transportation, boats, snow machines, ATVS and more. 

Opposers of Project Willow
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Naturally, many environmentalists, voters and Alaska Natives living closer to the planned project — including city officials and tribal members in the Native village of Nuiqsut — greatly oppose the project. Many people are concerned about how the project will affect the health of the land as well as the general long term environmental effects. Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, of Nuigst City, is very unhappy with the terms of the project and even wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about her concerns. In the recent weeks there has also been massive upheaval from online activists on platforms like TikTok, with users garnering over three million signatures on anti-Willow Project petitions. 

Earthjustice, a premier nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, is currently suing the Biden Administration for their approval of the project. 

The environmental concerns

One of the biggest problems opposers have with the project is just how much it undercuts the administrations promised climate goals. By approving this project, Biden is signing off on a long list of grievances rather than mitigating the climate. Those grievances include:

  • Increasing the threats that imperiled polar bears are facing
  • Accelerating the climate crisis by releasing 260 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses over the next 30 years, according to the Earth Justice system
  • Harming native communities that live near the  site
  • Drilling on Teshekpuk Lake, which contains critical breeding grounds for several important species, and endangering not just those species but their home and ability to reproduce . 

It’s no wonder the approval of this project has caused such an uproar. Both sides of the argument make strong points, but where do you stand? Tweet us, @VALLEYmag, with your thoughts on the matter.  


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