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The Alaska Willow Oil Project: Capitalization vs. Conservation

Updated: May 2, 2023

On March 13, the Biden Administration approved what is considered to be one of the largest oil developments in United States history. The 30-year-long massive oil drilling project, called the Willow Project, is expected to produce around 600 million barrels of oil. The project will take place on Alaska’s North Slope on the nation's largest piece of public land: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or the NPR-A. The oil reserve is controlled by a company called ConocoPhillips, Alaska's largest crude oil producer. Initial construction has already begun, building towards an end goal of hundreds of miles of pipelines, airstrips, and a gravel mine.

Willow is the largest drilling project thus far, but this is not the first time that Alaska has been exploited for natural resources. For decades, there has been a conversation in Congress about opening the Arctic Refuge to oil companies. The Arctic Refuge is the largest wildlife refuge in the country, located in untouched, pristine northeast Alaska. Finally, in 2017, Congress passed a provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, allowing the Trump administration to lease these Refuge lands to oil companies.

One of the cornerstone promises of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was to protect the environment by limiting oil drilling via The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution. The plan promised to “ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050” and “stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.” Despite Biden’s purported efforts, many climate activists feel as if this new enterprise directly contradicts his mission. In 2020, Biden vowed to end oil drilling on federal land — however, the Willow Project will take place on federal land, meaning that it requires federal permits. Administration officials declared that they took climate concerns into consideration, but they were not persuasive enough to stop the ultimate decision from being made.

The governmental justification of going through with the Willow Project is primarily fiscal. Alaska has long experienced historically low oil prices and a multi-billion-dollar deficit, with over one third of jobs tied directly to the oil and gas industry, according to the National Bureau of Land Management. Those in support of the Willow Project argue that the purpose of the NPR-A is to be drilled, as petroleum reserves are intended to take advantage of America's resources during energy crises.

Many feel especially strongly about the oil independence of the United States after Russia, an enormous supplier of oil, invaded Ukraine. The Mayor of Wainwright, Alaska, John Hopson Jr., explained that “the oil and gas industry is the source of many jobs for the Native shareholders of our Alaska Native corporations. We need those jobs to truly sustain our communities.” The project would presumably create around 2,300 new construction and permanent jobs and generate $10 million in federal and state revenue.

Even though the Willow Project may be beneficial in some ways, the extended timeline of the project is significant — its first barrels of oil will only be delivered in 2028 or 2029. Since the project is on federal land, the state cannot collect royalties on the oil produced there, meaning that in the short-term, Alaska has the potential to actually see a decrease in revenue.

Although Willow was passed in part to reverse the critical decline of the Alaskan economy, there is a larger cost at stake. The Willow Project will be detrimental to the environment in a number of ways. The Arctic already continues to warm over twice as fast than the rest of the world. The oil drilling process would release pollutants equivalent to 2 million gas-powered cars, or about 9.2 million metric tons of carbon emissions. In addition to the long-term effects of the project, there will be immediate effects on NPR-A ecosystems. Oil drilling often requires clearing large areas of land, which can lead to the destruction of natural habitats and the displacement of wildlife. The project especially threatens the vulnerable caribou population, which many native communities such as the Gwich’in and Iñupiat rely on as their primary food source. Action Network, which has been campaigning against the project, stated that “the noise, traffic, and pollution the project brings will disrupt ecosystems that Indigenous Alaskans have relied on for millennia.”

“Alaska remains an important energy state, but it will not make or break the nation’s energy independence in the coming decades,” says Phil Wight, an assistant professor of History and Northern Studies at the University Alaska Fairbanks. The Alaska Willow Project has its fair share of those who support it and those who do not. However, regardless of the project’s predicted negative effects on the environment, it is undeniably a drastic and far-reaching measure taken by the government in order to repair the Alaskan economy and to become independent from Russian oil companies.


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