Description and Details

On March 6, 2023, Pres­i­dent Biden approved the con­tro­ver­sial wil­low tree drilling project, betray­ing his 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign promise of end­ing new oil and gas drilling on pub­lic lands and waters.

The project takes place on Alaska’s remote North Slope, about 600 miles north of Anchor­age. The site lies in the Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve of Alas­ka, which was cat­e­go­rized as an emer­gency oil sup­ply for the U.S. Navy a cen­tu­ry ago. The com­pa­ny called Cono­coPhillips will own the project but the land is owned by the government

The approved wil­low tree oil drilling project is cur­rent­ly the largest oil pro­posed project in fed­er­al lands. Its expect­ed life­time is 30 years. Once built, it could pro­duce 180,000 bar­rels of oil dai­ly and 600,000,000 mil­lion bar­rels of oil over its life­time. Accord­ing to BLM’s (Bureau of Land Man­age­ment) assess­ment, it will gen­er­ate 270 mil­lion met­ric tons of car­bon diox­ide over the pro­jec­t’s lifetime.

Alaska’s law­mak­ers and a coali­tion of Alas­ka groups on the North Slope back this project, while Alaskan natives near the con­struc­tion site, includ­ing city offi­cials and trib­al mem­bers in the vil­lage of Nuisqut, strong­ly oppose it. The project has also received glob­al atten­tion from envi­ron­men­tal­ists and cli­mate activists world­wide against the project. The ten­sion induced by the project is about cli­mate change, the job mar­ket, rev­enue, the war in Ukraine, and the insta­bil­i­ty of the glob­al ener­gy market.

Since Alak­sa is warm­ing up twice as fast as the rest of the U.S., the tem­per­a­ture is expect­ed to increase by an aver­age of four degrees Fahren­heit over the next 30 years. The added green­house gas emis­sions from the project will increase the chal­lenge of com­bat­ting cli­mate change. Alas­ka is home to var­i­ous ani­mal species, like polar bears, brown bears, muskox, cari­bou, and mil­lions of migra­to­ry birds. This means extra cau­tion is direct­ed to how the drilling project will impact the local ecosys­tem. Build­ing the project will speed up cli­mate change and may also destroy local habitats.

The project is esti­mat­ed to cre­ate more than 2,000 con­struc­tion and 300 per­ma­nent jobs. It will be a new source of rev­enue for Alas­ka and will fund pub­lic ser­vices like edu­ca­tion and health care. Alaskan res­i­dents liv­ing near the North Slope are more con­cerned about the local envi­ron­ment and how cli­mate change, pol­lu­tants, and noise from the project would dis­rupt the area. Oth­er res­i­dents are grate­ful for the rev­enue from the project and the oppor­tu­ni­ties it may bring. Hence, opin­ion divi­sions also exist with­in Alaska.

Why did Biden change his opin­ion and decide to approve the project? Part of the rea­son is the war in Ukraine and the insta­bil­i­ty of the glob­al ener­gy mar­ket. After the war out­break in Ukraine, many coun­tries reduced or stopped import­ing Russ­ian gas and oil pur­chas­es to cur­tail Moscow’s rev­enues. The induced oil short­age in Europe is an incen­tive for the U.S. to fill the gap by pro­duc­ing more gas and oil. Addi­tion­al­ly, it could help boost domes­tic ener­gy pro­duc­tion and shore up U.S. ener­gy secu­ri­ty through less reliance on for­eign gas and oil.

In the debate of Willowtree’s envi­ron­men­tal and cli­mate impact, the “leak­age” the­o­ry in eco­nom­ics is worth dis­cussing. Accord­ing to the the­o­ry, increased domes­tic drilling won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly increase glob­al emis­sions. The main­tained steady price would decrease petro­le­um imports, and U.S. com­pa­nies are more like­ly to adhere to stricter envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and stan­dards. On the oth­er hand, increased prices by less fos­sil fuel sup­ply could make anoth­er com­pa­ny expand drilling else­where, regard­less of how the Wil­lowtree project goes. The key is to low­er the sup­ply and demand of gas and oil with­out strict con­trol to pre­vent a “bounce-back” in con­sump­tion and emis­sions. This allows for crit­i­cal thought about the pro­jec­t’s con­se­quence with­out sim­ply oppos­ing it from an envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion standpoint.

Cur­rent­ly, the Biden gov­ern­ment is mak­ing a com­pro­mise, push­ing for­ward a scaled-back ver­sion of the orig­i­nal plan. This includes shrink­ing the num­ber of con­struc­tion sites from five to three and elim­i­nat­ing the need for 11 miles of road, 20 miles of pipeline, and 133 acres of gravel.

CEE sub­jects: Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy and Sus­tain­able Infra­struc­ture, Ener­gy infrastructure

Discussion Questions

  • Should the oil project be built in Alas­ka? What might be the con­se­quences of it? Can you think of any fur­ther con­se­quences than were men­tioned in the review or impacts out­side of Alaska?
  • From this project, we can see that the envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion prin­ci­ple is not always pure­ly about cli­mate. Instead, it’s a com­plex mix­ture of pol­i­tics, econ­o­my, and social ten­sion. In this case, how should we com­bat those uncer­tain­ties and keep mov­ing for­ward to car­bon neutrality?
  • If you were allowed to pro­pose an alter­na­tive to the drilling project, what would you sug­gest? How would your pro­pos­al impact local com­mu­ni­ties, and what safe­ty fac­tors would you include?