The Willow Project: What is it, and how does it impact the environment?

The Willow Project: What is it, and how does it impact the environment?

Tavia Seitz and Max Boyd

On March 13, 2023, the Biden administration officially approved the Willow Project, an oil drilling plan with devastating environmental consequences. The project was started by ConocoPhillips, an energy company based in Houston, Texas. There are up to 600 million barrels of oil under ice in Alaska’s North Slope, a region in Northern Alaska. The Willow Project wants to drill for 180K barrels a day, which would account for 1.5% of the US’s current oil production (Elbeshbishi). The Trump Administration approved the project in 2020, but President Biden reduced the five drilling sites to three, allowing the company access to 90% of the oil they want. Millions of people across America are appalled by the approval of the project, especially because Biden promised to refrain from massive oil drilling during his administration.

Many environmentalists are outraged by the plan. Groups such as Greenpeace, an environmental nonprofit organization, filed lawsuits against federal agencies and administrators. These lawsuits were filed against the Willow Project, and the irreversible damage it would do to the environment. A petition on called “Biden Administration and ConocoPhillips: SAY NO TO THE WILLOW PROJECT” started by Sonny Ahk has been signed by more than 5 million people, and more continue to sign it every day. Part of the reason this petition was so widely spread was due to sharing on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. Millions of teenagers and young adults created posts and videos to help spread the message. If ConocoPhillips proceeds with their detrimental plan, the site of drilling will release more pollution every year than over 99.7% of all single point sources in the United States (Ahk). When this projects begins, Alaskan natives will face the brunt of the trauma, from pollution-related sickness to home evictions. Hastings High School science teacher, Ms. Barenfeld, says that as an oil drilling site, the Willow Project will emit gaseous air pollutants such as carbon dioxide. These pollutants can cause health issues such as cancer and respiratory problems. Potential oil spills could also pollute the water, causing further disease and loss of biodiversity. Ms. Barenfeld also says that the Willow Project could impact animal migration patterns, potentially affecting wolves, caribou, and thousands of bird species if they travel through or live near the site.

Despite the environmental impacts, some groups are supportive of the Willow Project. A coalition of Alaska Native groups who work with the US government to create opportunities support the project because of the revenue it will bring in which could fund education, healthcare, and more. Alaskan lawmakers agree, saying the project will boost energy production, make new jobs, and allow the country more financial and energy independence. Naguruk Harcharek, the president of an Alaskan advocacy group said, “Willow presents an opportunity to continue that investment in our communities. Without that money and revenue stream, we’re reliant on the state and the feds” (Nilsen). 

Ms. Barenfeld also recognizes these communities that rely on the revenue from projects such as these. She says communities who aren’t directly living on what would become oil drilling land would have positive impacts, such as new jobs and money, but won’t have to live with pollution and exile.  For example, one group called the Iñupiat who live on the North Slope are in favor of the Willow Project. They say that although it will take place on their land, “Its economic benefits to [their] communities are clear.” Also, if the US is still oil-reliant, using oil coming from the country could cut down on transportation emissions and costs.

The Willow Project is a controversial and multifaceted environmental and societal issue. On the one hand, it will have devastating environmental implications, but on the other, it could benefit many Alaskan communities financially. There is no perfect solution, which is why the Willow Project is such a debated topic. Ms. Barenfeld believes that although it might not feel like kids in Hastings can make much of a difference, even the smallest actions can help. Signing a petition, raising awareness, donating to environmentalist groups, or writing emails to congress people are just some of the ways to help. To sign the petition and learn about the repercussions of the project, go to Willow Project Petition. To donate to Earthjustice, a legal group against the Willow Project, go to Earthjustice – Donate Today. To understand the benefits, go to ​​Willow Project Benefits – ConocoPhillips