The Willow Project: The Beginning of the End?

On 13th March, US President Joe Biden approved a highly controversial oil drilling project in Alaska, with an estimated production capacity of 600 million barrels of oil equivalent over its lifetime. The project is led by ConocoPhillips, one of the largest oil-producing multinationals. This project, although extremely controversial, has been approved despite the role played by fossil fuels in the climate crisis, the concerns of local native communities, and strong public opposition.

“President Biden claims to prioritise climate justice, but today’s decision reveals that he is prepared to satisfy the pressures of Big Oil rather than 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 our people and our planet. Communities and frontline scientists have made it clear that this is the only way forward unless we want to exacerbate climate damage and push our world further into climate chaos,’ said Jeff Ordower, 350. org’s North America director.

“We will not give up protecting the Arctic today, tomorrow, or ever,” said a spokesperson for Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic.

The project, first announced in January 2017, is located in the Bear Tooth Unit (BTU) area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), a large 23-million-acre public land parcel, the largest in the country. According to calculations by the US Policy Institute Center for American Progress, the burning of the oil produced by the Willow project would generate 260 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide, thus eclipsing the emissions avoided through the Biden administration’s pledges to produce renewable energy on public lands and waters by 2030.

The Biden administration has defended itself against criticism. US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland defines the initiative as “a difficult and complex issue that has been inherited from previous Administrations”, and when confronted with the eminent climate crisis, justifies himself by saying ‘I am confident that we are on the right track, even if it is not always a straight line’. But the current climate situation is so desperate that we cannot afford not to follow a straight line.

On 20th March 2023, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC was published– an undertaking that took so long and involved hundreds of scientists and observers from all over the world. There will not be more reports until the fateful 2030. But despite being the last one for a while, it is by no means reassuring. The global temperature has risen by 1.1 degrees above the global average, with over 3.3 billion people already suffering the severe consequences of this crisis. We saw this in Malawi a few days ago, in Pakistan last summer, and in California right now, where violent flooding is already causing enormous damage. But there are solutions. One of them, the most important, is to stop burning oil, coal and gas.

We must stop funding projects that will only propel us faster and faster towards the 3-degree temperature increase, the fateful point at which we can no longer turn back. The Willow project is one of those projects that cannot afford to exist because its existence will threaten ours.