On 13 March, the US government approved an $8 billion oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, known as the Willow project and led by oil giant ConocoPhillips. This gives the green light to one of the largest oil developments ever constructed on US federal land, and opens the door to decades of drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a critical habitat for caribou and migratory birds.
The decision allows for the construction of three drilling pads, along with hundreds of miles of roads, pipelines, airstrips, gravel mines and processing facilities, on what is currently tundra and wetlands. The plan includes drilling on permafrost, which will require refreezing the ground through a system of chilling tubes in an attempt to keep it frozen and the equipment itself stable.
The three approved drilling sites could produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day, or about 1.5 per cent of US oil production. Critics warn the project will also accelerate the climate crisis. By the US government’s own estimates, it will generate 9.2 million tonnes of carbon pollution a year, or the equivalent of 2 million gas-powered cars. Outside estimates put that at closer to 260 million tonnes, or the equivalent of running nearly 70 coal-fired power plants for a year.
The project has been hotly debated, opposed by local Alaskan Native communities who say their health and food security has already been harmed by existing oil and gas development. “We are at ground zero for the industrialization of the Arctic,” says an open letter written by residents of Nuiqsut, a town 56 kilometres from the approved drilling site. This region has seen temperatures rise two to four times as fast as the rest of the planet. “No dollar can replace what we risk.”
This February, at the end of a lengthy environmental review, the US Bureau of Land Management identified three drill sites, rather than the five ConocoPhillips originally wanted. However, the US Department of the Interior , which oversees the agency, issued a separate statement with “substantial concerns” about the project – a highly unusual step. Deb Haaland, the US Secretary of the Interior, has declined to comment on Willow but said in a recent interview that “public lands belong to every single American, not just one industry”.
“The agency claims that they approved a smaller project that will have less impact. That’s just not true,” says Bridget Psarianos at the non-profit Trustees for Alaska. “Interior’s decision to give ConocoPhillips permits for an oil and gas project demonstrates once again how agencies and corporate interests disregard the cost of industrialisation to land, water, animals and people.”
“The true cost of the Willow project is to the land and to animals and people forced to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water,” wrote the organisation Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic. For decades, the National Audubon Society has recognised the Willow project area as critical for millions of migratory birds, including threatened spectacled eiders (Somateria fischeri) and other vulnerable birds. It is also the calving ground for the region’s herds of caribou (Rangifer tarandus), whose population has recently severely declined. The drilling will fragment this habitat, increasing noise, air pollution and human traffic. Last March, a methane gas release from another ConocoPhillips’ drill site forced the evacuation of 500 people from Nuiqsut, where people say they have been getting sick from the industry’s pollution.
While running for president, Joe Biden vowed to prohibit all “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters” to meet climate goals. In recent weeks, young activists have highlighted these campaign promises and the commitments of the Paris Agreement in a #StopWillow online campaign.
On 12 March, the Biden administration announced the US would offer protections to the Arctic Ocean and other areas of the reserve. Conservation groups like The Wilderness Society called those measures “welcome news”, but added “we regret that they were immediately followed by the profoundly disappointing decision to approve the Willow project”.