Biden administration approves controversial Willow Project

The US government has approved ConocoPhillips’s controversial Willow Project to drill for oil in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.

The US government has approved ConocoPhillips’s Willow Project, an oil extraction project with an estimated production capacity of 600 million barrels of oil equivalent over its lifetime. The project was approved despite fossil fuels’ role in the climate crisis, concerns among local Native communities, and sizable public opposition.

“President Biden claims to prioritize climate justice, yet today’s decision reveals that he is quick to cater to pressure from Big Oil over the needs of the people. Biden absolutely has the power to reject ALL new fossil fuel projects, declare a climate emergency, and truly fight for both our people and our planet. Frontline communities and scientists have been clear that that is the only way forward unless we want to exacerbate climate harm and drive our world further into climate chaos,” said North America Director Jeff Ordower in a statement following the project’s approval.

The Willow Project and its impacts

The project was first announced in January 2017. Its location is in the Bear Tooth Unit (BTU) area in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), a 23 million-acre large parcel of public land, the biggest in the country. ConocoPhillips, the largest crude oil producer in Alaska, acquired the first Willow leases in 1999, and it has been seeking to develop them since 2018. According to calculations by the US policy institute Center for American Progress, burning the oil produced by the Willow Project would generate 260 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide, eclipsing the emissions avoided through the Biden administration’s 2030 commitments to renewable energy on public lands and waters by 2030.

caribou in alaska
Caribou at Teshekpuk Lake in North Slope Borough © Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images


“We are too late in the climate crisis to approve massive oil and gas projects that directly undermine the new clean economy that the Biden administration committed to advancing. We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals,” said Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, in a statement in response to the Government’s decision.

The area where the project is located would suffer the impact of these emissions on climate change to an even higher degree than the rest of the world. The Government owned National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) is part of the Alaska North Slope, and it’s also known as America’s Western Arctic. The Arctic is being significantly affected by global warming: since 1979, the region has warmed four times faster than the rest of the planet due to Arctic amplification.

Government approval 

On March 13, 2023, the US Interior Department issued a Record of Decision (ROD) on the Willow Project. This US federal government executive department accepted three of five proposed drill sites. Along with this decision came a series of government initiatives to limit industrial and oil and gas development in the area, including the designation of about 2.8 million acres of the ocean near the Western Arctic as off-limits for oil and gas leasing.

“Today’s decision to approve the Willow Project in Alaska will lock in decades of dirty and dangerous oil and gas production and drown out the tremendous environmental and economic opportunities available from transitioning to a clean economy. While the president’s separate decision to protect sixteen million acres of the Arctic Sea from oil and gas extraction is welcome news, it doesn’t right the wrong of this decision,” Margie Alt, Director of the Climate Action Campaign, said in a statement.

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