On March 13, 2023, the Biden Administration approved a large oil extraction program called the Willow Project. The largest oil producer in Alaska, called ConocoPhillips, is conducting the project. Located in the northeast section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, this project is the largest new drilling project America has seen in twenty years. Comprising up to 199 wells, the Willow Project is expected to produce almost 600 million barrels of oil over the next thirty years.
According to ConocoPhillips, “project planning has spanned five presidential administrations,” with the first plot of land acquired in 1999. The mission of the Willow Project is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the future use and enjoyment of present and future generations,” and it boasts economic benefits and new job opportunities. However, the project has raised concern among Indigenous communities located on Willow Project land because it will have significant ecological and health impacts.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which looks into projects that could impact public lands, analyzed the potential environmental impacts of the Willow Project. Although ConocoPhillips has gone through years of “environmental analysis,” “BLM’s findings conclude that the cumulative effects of current and future activities may significantly restrict subsistence uses for Nuiqsut due to a reduction in availability of caribou and furbearers and due to limitations on subsistence user access to the area.” The Nuiqsut are an Indigenous population that lives in close proximity to the Willow Project. These people will experience direct impacts from the project that will interfere with their health, occupations, and overall ways of life.
According to Native Movement, there has been little research on the long-term effects of the Willow Project. Native Movement advocates for the preservation of the Arctic Slope of Alaska as it is “the birthing grounds of the 60,000 caribou.” In addition to a dwindling caribou population, locals have observed “sick fish, signs of starvation in caribou, and toxic air quality directly caused by oil and gas extraction within their homelands.”
The Native Village and City of Nuiqsut sent an email to BLM-Alaska stating that the BLM’s assessments of the Willow Project are “incomplete and misleading.” According to the email, many people in their communities lost their jobs because they moved away due to the detrimental effects oil drilling has had on their health.
The burning of fossil fuels is the top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, which amplifies the severity of climate change. The Willow Project is projected to release over 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with the oil that is extracted. Additionally, the extraction of oil releases methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the oil industry is responsible for a large portion of methane emissions, which are more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in relation to global warming.
Many environmentalists question why the Biden Administration approved this project, especially since he ran on a progressive, climate-focused campaign platform. During the 2020 presidential election, Biden ran on the promise that he would stop drilling on federal lands, but according to The Washington Post, “administration officials said they were limited by the law that governs NPR-A and the leases that ConocoPhillips has held since long before the Biden administration.” If the Biden Administration did not accept the project, ConocoPhillips would have sued the government for “billions of dollars at taxpayer expense, and [would] have been able to develop the project anyway.”
At a press conference, President Biden addressed the situation, stating that, although he had a “strong inclination [to] disapprove of it across the board,” he would “not be able to do what [he] really want[ed] to do beyond that, and that is conserve significant amounts of Alaskan sea and land forever.” In a recent viral interview with Stephen Colbert, when asked about the controversy of The Willow Project, Vice President Kamala Harris stated that, “the solutions have to be, and include, what we are doing in terms of moving forward and in terms of investments.” These statements have not been well received by environmentalists and Indigenous communities, as the administration did not even attempt to stop the project from happening.
“It’s time for the Biden administration to wake up and see the Willow Project for what it is: a choice between a transition to a greener future while protecting all communities or extending our unsurvivable addiction to fossil fuels while perpetrating yet another grave injustice to Indigenous communities. If the administration chooses the wrong fork of the road, our families will struggle to put food on the table. We will have to leave our history and culture behind. And Indigenous people will continue to suffer and die from respiratory diseases at a disproportionate rate.”
Climate change targets Indigenous communities especially harshly, as many are pushed to the side and treated as second class citizens. According to Amnesty International, “discrimination is the reason why Indigenous peoples make up 15% of the world’s extreme poor. Globally, they also suffer higher rates of landlessness, malnutrition and internal displacement than other groups.” The Willow Project is just one example of this discrimination manifested. While the Biden Administration preaches equity and environmental justice, approval of the Willow Project makes it evident that the US government would rather put people and the planet at risk, thus showing the tight grasp the oil industry has on our policymakers.
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Lindsey Botts is the digital editor at Sierra magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @Lkbotts. More articles by this author. “Environmentalists and Indigenous Groups Blast Approval of Willow Oil Project.” Sierra Club, 14 Mar. 2023, https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/environmentalists-and-indigenous-groups-blast-ap proval-willow-oil-project.
Native Village of Nuiqsut (“NVN”), et al. Received by BLM-Alaska, NVN and City of Nuiqsut Comments Regarding BLM Willow MDP Preliminary Final FSEIS , 25 Jan. 2023.
“Opposition to Proposed Willow Project.” Native Movement, https://www.nativemovement.org/willow-project.
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“Willow Project Threatens Traditional Caribou Hunting: Naqsragmiut Tribal President Writes Letter to the DOI Requesting Consultation.” NDN Collective, 7 Mar. 2023, https://ndncollective.org/willow-project-threatens-traditional-caribou-hunting-naqsr agmiut-tribal-president-writes-letter-to-the-doi-requesting-consultation/.
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