Last week, the Biden Administration approved the Willow Master Development Plan, an oil and gas project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve on the North Slope. The project has been a topic of fierce controversy since its initial proposal, with some advocating for its economic benefits, and others raising grave concerns about both its environmental and cultural impacts.
The origins of the Willow Project can be traced back to the discovery of oil in the North Slope region of Alaska in the late 1960s. The Prudhoe Bay oil field, discovered in 1968, is one of the largest oil fields in North America and has been a major source of domestic energy production for over four decades. The Willow Project is a new development in the same region that would expand oil and gas production in the area.
The Willow Project was proposed by ConocoPhillips Alaska in 2017, and the company submitted its formal development plan to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in November 2019. The project is expected to include the construction of infrastructure and facilities to support the drilling and production of oil and gas from the field, including the construction of roads, pipelines, drilling pads, and processing facilities, as well as the installation of power generation and water supply systems.
The development of the project has been met with mixed reactions. Proponents argue that it will create jobs, boost the local economy, and provide a reliable source of domestic energy. It’s expected to create thousands of jobs during construction and hundreds of permanent positions once operations begin – it’s also expected to generate significant revenue for the government and local area, through lease bonuses, royalties, and taxes, which will be used to help fund services like education and healthcare.
Opponents raise concerns about the environmental and cultural impacts of the project – the North Slope region of Alaska has a unique and fragile ecosystem and is home to many species, including caribou, polar bears, and migratory birds. The development of the project could harm wildlife and their habitats, disrupt migratory patterns, and negatively impact the overall health of the ecosystem and surrounding area. Additionally, the production of oil and gas will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change. The administration’s own estimates showed that 9.2 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution would be released per year – the equivalent of adding 2 million cars to the road.
There are also growing concerns about the cultural impact on indigenous communities in the area, including the Iñupiat people, who have relied on subsistence hunting and fishing for generations. The project could affect traditional land-use practices and cultural heritage sites, erasing important knowledge and traditions. Many Arctic Indigenous people have publicly opposed the project, and an online petition urging the Biden Administration not to approve it garnered over four and a half million signatures.
Despite this opposition, The Willow Project has been subject to a rigorous regulatory review process. The Bureau of Land Management has completed an environmental impact statement for the project, which evaluates possible impacts on the environment and cultural resources. The review process has also included input from the public, including indigenous communities, environmental organisations, and industry representatives.
In September 2020, the BLM issued a final impact statement, which evaluated several development scenarios and analysed them each – the agency ultimately recommended the approval of the project, subject to certain conditions designed to mitigate the environmental impact. After months of speculation, the project was approved on the 13th of March 2023, despite standing in stark contrast with the US government’s shift in priorities towards environmental conservation, as well as being a direct contradiction of President Biden’s campaign promise to end new oil and gas drilling on public land.
The future of the project now remains unclear; environmental law group Earthjustice is expected to file an injunction to prevent the development from moving forward. Construction must begin during the winter season due to the need for ice roads to build infrastructure, and depending on the weather in Alaska this could end as soon as April. It will be a race between ConocoPhillips and its opponents to either begin construction or find a legal precedent to halt the project – for this year at least.