‘Massive Climate Disaster’: Groups Demand Biden Reverse Course on Willow Project
The Biden administration's Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday published an environmental assessment that recommends partial approval of a major drilling project on Alaska's North Slope, prompting a flurry of calls for the Interior Department to reject the plan outright and prevent any additional fossil fuel extraction in the region.
"Greenlighting the Willow project would banish President Biden's climate legacy to one of irreparable and downright shameful environmental destruction," said Raena Garcia, fossil fuels and lands campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "Big Oil's exploitation of the rapidly warming Arctic has already thrust local communities onto the frontlines of the climate crisis, jeopardizing public health and polluting critical ecosystems."
Kristen Miller, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, implored Biden to "reverse course on this massive climate disaster."
"Our window to act is rapidly closing to avert catastrophic climate change," Miller added, "and this plan only takes us one giant step closer to the edge."
The BLM's newly released supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) suggests a "preferred alternative" to the originally planned Willow Project, a ConocoPhillips initiative that has been the subject of years of court battles between environmentalists and the federal government under the Trump and Biden administrations.
The SEIS recommends the approval of three drilling locations instead of the original five and proposes limiting pipeline mileage. ConocoPhillips executives have said that any fewer than three drilling sites would make the project unviable as it would prevent Willow from turning a profit for the company.
The Biden administration's assessment acknowledges that "any North Slope oil and gas development, including the Willow [Master Development Plan], would likely incur spills" even if significant preventative measures are taken.
Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic warned in a statement that "if approved, this project would be the largest on public lands and would set back our national climate goals tremendously."
"Willow would lock us into extraction for another 30 years and could potentially be the catalyst for future oil expansion in the Arctic," the grassroots group said. "In 2021, a federal judge rejected the Interior Department's 2020 approvals of Willow for lack of adequate consideration of the impact of the surrounding environment. Regardless of the precautions put in place, there is no denying that fossil fuels are single-handedly the most damaging contributor to the global climate emergency, especially the Arctic."
"The Interior Department must reject the Willow proposal and live up to this administration's promises to take meaningful climate action and protect biodiversity by leveraging natural climate solutions," the group added. "The only reasonable solution to the climate emergency is to deny new fossil fuel projects like Willow and invest in a just transition."
The Interior Department—headed by Deb Haaland, who criticized the Willow Project as a member of Congress—now has a month to make a final decision on the project.
In a statement, the department made clear that it could further curtail the project or block it entirely—a step climate groups said would be consistent with the administration's climate pledges.
"The department has substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final SEIS, including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence," the agency said. "Consistent with the law, a decision will be finalized by the department no sooner than 30 days after publication of the final SEIS. That decision may select a different alternative, including no action, or the deferral of additional drill pads beyond the single deferral described under the preferred alternative."
While the scaled-back alternative plan for Willow would have a smaller climate impact than the originally proposed project, it would still emit around 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, the BLM estimated.
Earthjustice, which has fought the Willow Project in court, noted that the revised plan would "bring at least 219 wells, 267 miles of pipelines, and 35 miles of roads to a vast public lands area in Alaska's Western Arctic, permanently altering a globally significant and ecologically rich landscape."
As The New York Timesreported, ConocoPhillips "has said it was hoping for a fast decision from the Biden administration that would allow construction to begin this winter," fearing that "if spring sets in and warmer temperatures begin to melt the frozen roads, it could make it more difficult for crews to pass and construction would have to be shelved for another year."
"Therein lies one of the Willow project's ironies," the Times continued. "Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States and the region is expected to continue to warm by an average of 4°F over the 30-year life of the Willow project, thawing the frozen Arctic tundra around the drilling rigs and shortening the winter season during which ice roads and bridges remain frozen. The proposed solution: ConocoPhillips plans to eventually install 'chillers' into the thawing permafrost to keep it solid enough to support the equipment to drill for oil—the burning of which will release carbon dioxide emissions that will worsen the ice melt."
Dyani Chapman, state director of the Alaska Environment Research and Policy Center, said Wednesday that "it's absurd that as our tundra is melting because of climate change, ConocoPhillips plans to use 'chillers' to re-freeze tundra so it can drill for oil that will, in turn, make climate change even worse."
"The Willow project is bad for Alaskans," said Chapman. "ConocoPhillips' activities, which bring gas leaks and harmful development into the region, have already done a lot of damage to local communities. The community of Nuiqsut is already surrounded by planned and active oil wells and people there have seen a rise in respiratory illnesses. They do not need more oil wells and drilling."
Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.