Big Oil's Arctic Drilling Proposal Could Endanger Biden's Climate Policy

Oil company ConocoPhillips has proposed the “Willow Project,” a new network of drilling pads in the Arctic putting the Biden Administration at a crossroads. The Administration is currently reviewing the $6 billion project that involves miles of roads, airstrips, pipelines, a gravel mine, and a processing facility, all on the largest swathe of public land.

The Willow Project had been approved by the Trump Administration, and later blocked in a federal court that ruled the government hadn’t considered how burning the oil removed from the ground would affect the climate. According to ConocoPhillips, the project would emit 35 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses (GhG). The Biden Administration is now factoring those climate considerations into its overall evaluation and has a tough decision to make. While gas prices have skyrocketed and prompted an increase in fossil fuel demand, building massive new oil wells (especially on public land) threatens Biden’s climate commitments.

Fairbanks FEDC: Task Force | March 1, 2022 | ConocoPhillips Alaska North Slope and Willow Project Update, March 2, 2022.

Yahoo Finance: Judge blocks ConocoPhillips Alaska oil project, Wells Fargo reinstates personal credit lines, August 19, 2021.

Why This Matters

Science tells us we’ve got to stop new drilling as soon as possible. To keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, 40% of fossil fuels available for extraction from existing oil and coal fields must remain untouched. A recent report from the Guardian found that the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies are beginning 195 new oil and gas projects, many of which will be “carbon bombs,” that emit up to 1 billion tons of carbon during their lifetimes. Paired with ever-increasing gas prices, this makes the renewable energy transition particularly attractive.

But, since taking office, it has been difficult for the Biden Administration to pump the brakes on drilling. Just days after last year’s COP26, the federal government held its largest oil and gas lease auction in history, a plan set in motion by Trump that a federal court had ordered the Biden Administration to complete despite Biden’s first-week executive order attempting to block the auction. The Willow Project proposal is yet another example of the Administration getting caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to phasing out new fossil fuels.

EuroNews: UN Secretary-General says the climate crisis is placing half of humanity in 'the danger zone,' June 14, 2022.

Democracy Now: Bill McKibben | Latest IPCC Climate Report Underscores "Fossil Fuel Is at the Root of Our Problems," April 7, 2022.

Now This: Why Resuming Oil and Gas Leasing is Bad for the Environment, October 24, 2021.

The Many Consequences Of Willow

While any new drilling is bad for reducing emissions levels, the Willow Project could be even worse than expected. Conservation groups worry the project could ultimately produce 3 billion barrels of oil, which is far more than the 586 million barrels estimated by the Bureau of Land Management. The project will also require 270 one-way vehicle trips daily over a 30-year span, totaling a near 3 million one-way vehicle trips. Another concern is that approving this one drilling project on a large arctic reserve sets a bad precedent, and could open the floodgates for more development. Meanwhile, residents of Nuiqsut, a neighboring town, worry the new development could also bring health impacts.

“When you add this all up, if the Biden Administration allows the project to go forward, they’ll be signing off on something that’s far worse than what was envisioned by the Trump team,” Layla Hughes, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, told the Washington Post.

World Wildlife Fund: Stop Arctic Drilling Cold | Keep Oil Under the Sea, October 5, 2016.

CBS: Huge carbon emissions cuts needed, UN climate report finds, April 4, 2022.

IEA: A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use, March 18, 2022.