President Joe Biden’s administration is expected to approve ConocoPhillips’ proposed Willow project, which involves pumping as much carbon into the atmosphere as 60 coal-burning power plants. The project calls for drilling oil and building miles of pipelines and roads, a gravel pit, an airstrip, and other infrastructure in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and would produce as much as 600,000 barrels of oil over its three-decade lifetime and add nearly 280 million tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere over that period.
Biden pledged to halt new oil and gas development on federal land during his 2020 campaign, but his administration is now moving toward potential approval of the Willow project. This shift to the center on oil could demoralize the climate activists that Biden needs to support him in 2024. Jamal Raad, co-founder and senior adviser of the group Evergreen Action, stated that “it will be harder for us and climate activists to rally around this president come next year.” Raad explains that the approval would detract from Biden’s many accomplishments, such as the $370 billion in climate and clean energy incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act while putting the onus on Biden to issue tougher environmental rules on cars and power plants.
At the end of 2021, ConocoPhillips possessed roughly 1.6 million net undeveloped acres and held the title of Alaska’s biggest crude oil producer and owner of exploration leases. The company also had significant ownership stakes in two of North America’s biggest legacy conventional oil fields, namely Kuparuk and Prudhoe Bay, both situated on Alaska’s North Slope, with Kuparuk being operated by ConocoPhillips. Furthermore, the Western North Slope’s Alpine Field was under ConocoPhillips’ management.
What Would Approval Mean for the Biden Administration
The approval of the Willow project would be a significant setback for Biden’s environmental policy. Although the White House has insisted that there have been “no final decisions” about the project, administration officials have touted the importance of oil production in recent months.
On the one hand, the approval of the project could contribute to the administration’s goal of achieving energy independence and reducing dependence on foreign oil. The project could create new job opportunities and generate revenue for the state of Alaska, as well as the federal government. The project’s proponents argue that the development of domestic oil resources could strengthen national security and promote economic growth. Furthermore, the project’s construction and operation could spur infrastructure investments in the region, improving transportation and communication networks, and fostering regional economic development.
On the other hand, the approval of the project could be controversial and could face opposition from environmentalists and Indigenous communities. The project could impact the region’s wildlife, including caribou herds, migratory birds, and fish populations. It could also have implications for the region’s ecosystem and biodiversity, as well as for the Indigenous communities that rely on the region’s resources for subsistence and cultural practices. Additionally, the project could contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, potentially undermining the administration’s commitment to addressing climate change. The project’s opponents argue that it could lead to environmental degradation, exacerbate climate change, and undermine the administration’s commitment to protecting public lands and promoting clean energy.
The approval would be consistent with Biden’s near- and long-term emissions targets, which aim to cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. The White House official stated that using oil and gas is still consistent with Biden’s targets.