The Willow Project: Reality of Economy vs Environment

Critics maintain that the Willow Project will severely damage the environment in parts of AlaskaPixabay

This year, on 13 March, the Biden administration has approved the controversial oil extraction project, known as ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska. The decision has undoubtedly paved the way for multiple opinions. Although the approval gave economic hope to many, it definitely infuriated environmentalists, indigenous groups and climate activists all around the world, as they speculate this project would be environmentally disastrous for Alaska and even for the entire planet. Let’s dive deep into why carrying out this massive oil drilling project raises concerns.


Willow Project is a large-scale oil drilling project in Alaska that aims to produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day, which is roughly 1.5% of total U.S oil production and over 576-600 million barrels of oil over the course of 30 years, costing around $8-$10 billion. This project will be carried out in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPR-A), a reserve owned by the federal government.  It was proposed by ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest oil and gas exploration and production company. ConocoPhillips proposed it during Trump’s presidency and it was initially approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in October 2020. However, the project got formal approval by the Biden administration this year.

But the Willow Project has been a matter of controversy from the beginning for many environmental and political reasons. When this ‘development’ project was initially approved by Trump’s administration to ratchet up fossil fuel development on federal lands, the original plan was to construct five drilling pads and 250 drilling wells. However, in 2021, Alaska District Court Judge Sharon Gleason vacated the approval and sent it back to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as the agency was ‘failed to include greenhouse gas emissions from foreign oil consumption in its environmental analysis, failed to adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives and did not outline specific measures to mitigate the project's impact on polar bears.’

Additionally, during 2020 election campaign, candidate Joe Biden, opposed the drilling project and vowed ‘No more drilling on federal lands’ to voters. But the outrage sparked when on March 13, Biden formally approved the project. Though the Biden administration decided to scale back the project and add new constraints, people still view it as a betrayal of Biden’s campaign pledge. This is one of few oil projects that Biden has approved without courts order or congressional compulsion. The project’s current objectives are to construct 3 drilling pads and 199 drilling wells. But even with the minimization, this project remains the largest oil extraction project ever undertaken on federal territory.

The New York Times reported ConocoPhillips has held leases to the prospective drilling site for more than two decades and administration attorneys argued that refusing a permit would trigger a lawsuit that could cost the government as much as $5 billion. So, from legal standpoint, Biden administration could not have risked filing a multi-billion dollars lawsuit just for it to get approved anyway, especially with an election year around the corner.

Now this contentious past of Willow leads two types of arguments that definitely cast doubt on the veracity of this project. Who is in favour, who is not, who supports it, who does not, why should we support it, why we should not and more.

Willow Project's economic benefits outweigh its environmental benefits by a wide margin. The main aim is speculated to be lessening United States' dependency on foreign oil, especially from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Although the Bureau of Land Management has stated the project emphasises more on providing jobs and generating revenue for the local communities, it is estimated that Willow Project will generate around 2500 jobs and up to 17 billion dollars in federal tax revenue. And 50% of it will be legitimately distributed to the state of Alaska, prioritising the most effected people by this development project.

This project has gained a huge political support over the time including the state lawmakers, Alaska’s entire bipartisan congressional delegation, Republican senators as well as Democratic representative Mary Patola, the first Alaska native ever elected to congress. The majority from the North-slope region and other indigenous communities have shown their support in the hope of being benefited from the generated revenue that are to invest in infrastructure, fund and public services like education, health care for the locals.

But a few indigenous groups and several environmental activists are focusing more on the wildlife and environmental damage that this project would cost. One of major concern regarding this project is, this project is expected to generate 287 million tons of carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases, which is equivalent to the total annual electricity use of over 30 million homes. Environmental analysis also found that this project would also release black carbon (pM2.5), which research has found to have toxic effects on the health of community members near the pollution source.  Even BLM predicts that the effects would be environmentally ‘long term of high intensity’.

The major victim of this project perhaps would be the little indigenous town Nuiqsut, where ‘Willow’ will be taking place. The residents of Nuiqsut have shown deep concern and opposing the development project for the sake of their food sources, health and wildlife. This town depends on two major food sources, Caribou, a wild species of deer and fishing. The problem is the execution would require oil drilling sites, compromise road access, pipelines and processing plants for production of oil, gas and petroleum. That would easily disrupt the wildlife and sea creatures in Alaska. On top of that, this is not the only project ConocoPhillips intends to carry out in Alaska.

To fuel the raising doubt about the company’s legitimacy, Conoco previously had records for oil and gas leaks and oceanic rig spills that were attempted to cover up. On 2 July 2012, a group of 30 fishermen from Shandong province filed a lawsuit against ConocoPhillips in US federal court in Texas, where ConocoPhillips is headquartered. Following the 2011 oil spill in the Bohai sea in China, the plaintiffs claimed justice for the severely damage of the wildlife in Bohai Bay and effect on the local fishermen’s livelihoods, due to the Chinese Government blocking access to its own court system.

We have always been forced to make a trade-off between nature and a nation’s prosperity. The majority of developments, however, have gone against the laws of nature, which is why today we are experiencing these climate catastrophes

Even while the United States has developed across all fields, it has not been able to do much for the indigenous native communities who were left behind. Most of the supporters of this approval have been the people of indigenous so far and can they be blamed? State is offering thousands of employment, billions of dollars, fundings, public service improvement and what not. But can we ignore the massive environmental crisis this project will trigger in future? How the execution of willow will likely cause concerns for indigenous community including food scarcity, inability to practice their subsistence lifestyle, threatening migratory birds, caribou, whales and other animals that inhabit the region, water pollution, noise pollution, health issues, extinction of wild and sea creatures and more?

The different opinions and viewpoints that emerged after the Willow Project approval, surely has given us a new outlook on reality. We have always been forced to make a trade-off between nature and a nation’s prosperity. The majority of developments, however, have gone against the laws of nature, which is why today we are experiencing these climate catastrophes. If now is not the best moment to revise the climate issue, when will the ideal time be?

Meanwhile, the Economy vs Environment debate continues.

* The writer is a student of Mass Communication and Journalism department of University of Dhaka.