The Willow Project: Biden Breaks Campaign Promise To Stop Drilling For Oil & What To Know

March 16, 2023

On Monday March 13, the Biden administration approved the Willow Project, giving green light to the drilling of 23 million acres of undisturbed federal lands in Alaska. This breaks Biden’s campaign promise to stop drilling for oil in federal lands. It also sets back the U.S. commitment to climate that Biden announced in April 2021: to cut emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030. At the time, the newly sworn-in president said that “the United States isn’t waiting; we are resolving to take action.” The development around the Willow Project shows how such words are easily broken.

snow-capped mountains in the distance and a beautiful blue lake in the foreground in Alaska.

What you should know about the Willow Project

Who started the Willow Project?

The federally owned land, called National Petroleum Reserve, was first leased to a Houston-based oil company called ConocoPhillips in the 1990s. In 2020, Trump approved the drilling. In 2021, Sharon Gleason, chief judge in the U.S. District Court of Alaska, blocked the drilling arguing the environmental analysis was incomplete. After the Bureau of Land Management reassessed the climate impact as ordered by the court, Biden has just approved the project again.

Biden administration sources claim that the court would not have allowed them to significantly reduce or reject the Willow Project, given that ConocoPhillips has already legally leased the land. They argue that this could have made the administration liable to a lawsuit or fines.

Can we stop the Willow Project?

Over one million letters and three million signatures have flooded the White House in recent weeks, but the project was approved anyway. Still, nonprofits are gearing up to challenge the Willow Project in court. Earthjustice, one of the groups who have filed a lawsuit, believes that the project is in breach of the administration’s responsibility to protect Alaska’s lands, which includes limiting carbon emissions. “We and our clients don’t see any acceptable version of this project, we think the [environmental impact] analysis is unlawful,” said Jeremy Lieb, a senior attorney for Earthjustice, in an interview with CNN.

What is the environmental impact of the Willow Project?

The drilling would produce 600 million barrels of oil. This would create 9.2 million metric tonnes of carbon, which is equivalent to 2 million gas-powered cars on the road. Or, it amounts to operating 66 new coal-powered plants over 30 years. Groups like Earthjustice and Wilderness Society maintain that the drilling will impact the ecosystems and wildlife, in addition to the overall impact on climate.

The National Petroleum Reserve, the largest single piece of public land in the country, is home to hundreds of species. This includes migratory birds, grizzlies, polar bears, caribou, walrus, wolves, beluga whales, salmon and dozens of fish species.

How are the Native American communities reacting to the Willow Project?

Some Native American communities, like the residents of Nuiqsuit, have been speaking out against the Willow Project for years. They believe that the drilling will harm the ecosystem and damage their ancestral, subsistence way of living. Others say that the project will bring much-needed jobs and development to the area.

How can we get involved?

Speak out against the Willow Project on social media. Donate to the groups that are challenging the decision in court. These are: the Wilderness Society, Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Alaska Wilderness League, Environment America, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, and the Sierra Club.

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Photo: Kathrine Coonjohn via Unsplash


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