What about Willow?

News of the Willow Project has been sweeping the internet for a while now. Many might recognize the hashtag “StopWillow” on posts and videos, which invokes the question “what is Willow?” and “what impact will it have on the climate and Alaska wildlife?” 

The Willow Project is located on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), 23-million acres of federal land on Alaska’s North Slope set aside in 1923 as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy, and transferred to the Bureau of Land Management in 1976.  Because it is located on federal land, the proposed ConocoPhillips project needed presidential approval for development. President Joe Biden gave that approval on March 13. At the same time, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Interior, Biden reduced the size of the project from five drilling pads initially proposed to three, thus reducing the scope of the project by 40%.

ConocoPhillips is Alaska’s largest oil producer. The company estimates Willow will produce 600-million barrels of oil, create 2,500 construction jobs, and 300 long-term jobs. Proponents of the project believe it will also decrease U.S. reliance on foreign oil, therefore help increase national security. 

Alaska’s congressional delegation has long supported the Willow Project. In a joint news release, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, and Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, said,  “this revenue source will also give the state options to address large challenges like our changing climate and economic outmigration.” Several North Slope Alaska Native groups say the project will help their economy and potentially create more resources for their communities.  

However, some Alaska Native groups in the region have concerns about the project, including Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and other Nuiqsut officials as well as tribal members. 

“BLM does not look at the harm this project would cause from the perspective of how to let us be us – how to ensure that we can maintain our culture, traditions, and our ability to keep going out on the land and the waters,” Ahtuangaruak said in a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

According to the letter, Nuiqsut is so close to the Willow Project that health and environmental impacts would be greater for them than other indigenous villages that support the project. 

Major opponents of the Willow Project through largely social media campaigns include the  “Protect the Arctic” movement and “StopWillow” along with a large number of Gen Z and environmentalists hoping to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling.  This was evident by the 4.6 million signatures on March 20 on a Change.Org petition. According to EarthJustice, the president received more than 5 million letters against the project by mid-March. 

Environmental activists and many Gen Z are concerned about the environmental impact the Willow Project could have on the Arctic. According to the August 2022 open-access journal Communications Earth and Environment, the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the world since 1979. Willow is estimated to release 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the environment, and opponents are also concerned about gas leaks as well as habitat loss, posing threats to area villages and wildlife.

By approving the project, the president has received backlash from conservation groups and a large portion of Gen Z who believe he broke a campaign promise to aid the climate crisis.  During a 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate on CNN, Biden said “no more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill. Period.” 

Many might wonder if there is any way to stop the Willow Project now that it’s been approved. Although it is unlikely, some environmental groups are taking legal action and campaigning to stop it. People against the Willow Project can write or call the White House, your local representatives, and post on social media using #StopWillow.  

For more information on how to take action to stop the Willow Project and protect the Arctic, Visit https://www.protectthearctic.org/stop-willow

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not the Whalesong or UAS.

By Liz Früchtnicht, Marketing Coordinator, Whalesong

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