On March 13, 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. It gives the green light to one of the largest oil developments ever made 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 existing tundra and wetlands. The plan includes drilling at permafrostwhich would require refreezing the ground through a system of cooling pipes in an attempt to keep it frozen and the equipment itself stable.
The three approved drilling sites can produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day, or about 1.5 percent of US oil production. Critics warn the project will also accelerate the climate crisis. By the US government’s own estimation, it will develop 9.2 million tons of carbon pollution in a year, or the equivalent of 2 million gas powered vehicles. Outside estimates are closer to 260 million tonsor the equivalent of running about 70 coal-fired power plants for a year.
The project is hotly contested, opposed by local Alaska Native communities who say their health and food security have 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 kilometers from the approved drilling site. This region has seen an increase in temperature two to four times faster than the rest of the planet. “No dollar can replace our risk.”
This February, at the end of a lengthy environmental review, the US Bureau of Land Management identified three drill sites, instead of the five ConocoPhillips originally wanted. However, the US Department of the Interior, which oversees the agency, issued a separate statement statement with “significant concerns” about the project – an unusual step. Deb Haalandthe US Secretary of the Interior, declined to comment on Willow but said in a recent interview that “public lands belong to every American, not just an industry”.
“The agency says they approved a smaller project that will have less impact. That’s not true,” said Bridget Psarianos to the non-profit Trustees for Alaska. “Interior’s decision to grant permits to ConocoPhillips for an oil and gas project demonstrates once again how agencies and corporate interests ignore the value of industrialization to land, water, animals and people.”
“The real cost of the Willow project is to the land and to the animals and people forced to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water,” wrote the organization Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic. For decades, the National Audubon Society has recognized the Willow project site as critical for millions of migratory birds, including the endangered spectacular eiders (Somateria fischeri) and other vulnerable birds. It is also the calving ground for caribou herds in the region (Rangifer tarandus), whose population has recently declined dramatically. Drilling will become part of this habitat, which will increase noise, air pollution and human traffic. Last March, a release of methane gas from another ConocoPhillips drill site forced the evacuation of 500 people from Nuiqsut, where people say they are getting sick from industrial pollution.
While running for president, Joe Biden pledged to ban all “new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters” to meet climate goals. In recent weeks, young activists have highlighted the promises of this campaign and the commitments of the Paris Agreement in an online #StopWillow campaign.
On March 12, the Biden administration announced the US will offer protections in the Arctic Ocean and other reserve areas. Conservation groups such as The Wilderness Society called those moves “welcome news”, but added that “we regret that they were immediately followed by a hugely disappointing decision to approve the Willow project”.