Why Biden's decision to approve Alaska's Willow oil project is so controversial

Aerial photo of a road leading through snow and ice to what appears to be an oil well.
A 2019 photo of an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope. (ConocoPhillips via AP)

The Biden administration announced Monday morning that it is giving final approval to a major oil drilling project in Alaska located in the largest unspoiled natural area in the United States, triggering swift condemnation from climate change activists.

The Bureau of Land Management’s decision to greenlight the proposal, known as the Willow project, has been the subject of intense lobbying in recent weeks. To mollify project opponents, the White House paired the announcement with some reductions in the scope of the project and new restrictions on fossil fuel leasing in the area.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to end new federal oil and gas drilling. Here’s what we know about the project and what caused the president to approve it.

What is the Willow project?

Map of Alaska focused on the North Slope showing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska and the Willow project area.

The Willow project is a planned oil and gas extraction project from ConocoPhillips in which the company is expected to invest $8 billion. The drilling site is within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, also known as NPR-A, a 23-million-acre stretch located on the state’s famed North Slope. Until now, that area was the largest undisturbed parcel of public land in the United States.

Who supported the project?

The oil and gas industry, Alaska’s elected officials — including Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola — and some building trade unions, all of whom see it as beneficial to the local economy and helpful in generating tax revenue, supported approval of the project. ConocoPhillips said Willow would bring as much as $17 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues. The Alaska House of Representatives also voted unanimously in favor of the project.

“It will help residents across our state — in every school, public safety, public transportation — it will help the nation,” Peltola said at a pro-Willow rally earlier this month.

Last week the mayors of two nearby towns, both predominantly Indigenous communities, wrote an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News in support of the proposal.

“Resource development and our subsistence way of life are not mutually exclusive,” they wrote. “Without critical funds made available through responsible natural resource development, many of our people would be forced to leave the lands they have inhabited for thousands of years.”

Who opposed it?

A half dozen demonstrators stand near the White House and hold umbrellas and signs reading: Declare a climate emergency now, say no to Willow and President Biden: Defuse the Willow climate bomb, stop Willow.
Demonstrators near the White House on March 3, demanding that President Biden stop the Willow project. (Bryan Olin Dozier/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

Environmentalists and some Indigenous Alaskans vigorously opposed approval of the project.

Campaigns on TikTok using the hashatgs #stopwillow, #stopwillowproject and #stopprojectwill have received more than 373 million combined views and were among the top 10 trending topics on the social media platform last week.

“It’s just so blatantly bad for the planet,” Hazel Thayer, a climate activist who posted TikTok videos using the #stopwillow hashtag, told the Associated Press last Wednesday, as speculation mounted that the project would be approved. “I think a lot of young people are feeling a little bit betrayed.”

“The Willow Project is a carbon bomb, and an environmental and political disaster that we cannot afford,” Liv Schroeder, national policy director of the youth climate action group Fridays for Future U.S., said in a statement on Saturday in anticipation of potential approval. “President Biden promised young people, climate voters, and frontline communities that he would stop oil and gas expansion on federal land, and that he would be a climate president. A climate president wouldn’t approve Willow.”

Why did Biden approve it?

President Biden squints slightly and raises a finger at a podium with two microphones.
President Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

ConocoPhillips’s federal leases predate Biden’s tenure, going all the way back to 1999. That reportedly led the White House to conclude it lacked the legal authority to reject the plan. Had it been rejected, ConocoPhillips could have sued and quite possibly won a court order forcing an approval, according to legal experts.

“They have lease rights — and that can’t be ignored,” John Leshy, a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law who served as solicitor of the Department of Interior (DOI) under President Bill Clinton, told the Washington Post. “That’s a big finger on the scale in favor of development.”

But, Leshy added, the administration still has the power to impose rules to limit the environmental damage.

What new rules is the administration imposing?

According to a statement issued Monday morning by DOI, “The Department is substantially reducing the size of the project by denying two of the five drill sites proposed by ConocoPhillips, which is seeking to develop oil and gas leases it acquired beginning in the late 1990s. The company will also relinquish rights to approximately 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the NPR-A, including approximately 60,000 acres in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.”

Biden is also putting large swaths of land and water surrounding the drilling area off limits to future extraction. He will make 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean near the NPR-A off limits for oil and gas leasing.

What is the climate change impact of the leasing?

A demonstrator holds a sign reading: Act on climate. Stop Willow.
A demonstration near the White House on March 3. (Bryan Olin Dozier/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

The project could produce an estimated 600 million barrels of crude oil over 30 years.

Burning that oil would release roughly 280 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Over 30 years, that would mean an annual average of 9.2 million metric tons of climate pollution, equal to the output of 2 million cars. While that is a lot, it’s worth putting into context. The United States emits 5.6 billion metric tons of CO2 — or around 600 times as much — every year.

Doesn’t Biden want to end federal fossil fuel extraction?

As part of his agenda to combat climate change, Biden campaigned on a promise to end new fossil fuel leasing on federal lands and waters. And, just a week into his tenure, he put a pause on selling new oil and gas leases.

However, his administration is still required to allow oil and and gas drilling on federal lands under existing leases, which is why DOI is handing out drilling permits faster than it did under President Donald Trump. Biden has also been forced to hold new lease auctions under court orders. Environmentalists argue that he hasn’t fought hard enough to avoid that outcome. And in order to win the crucial support of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., he agreed to sell some new leases as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

How are climate activists reacting to the news?

"President Biden’s approval of the Willow project is a colossal and reprehensible stain on his environmental legacy,” said Raena Garcia, fossil fuels and lands campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “Forcing a massive climate disaster project onto a region already plagued by climate change is nothing short of tragic for the planet and Alaska’s communities. While the administration sides with Big Oil and exploitation of our public lands, we will keep fighting until this project is stopped dead in its tracks.”

Climate-focused Democrats are also in an uproar. Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon slammed the move on Twitter. Merkley called the move “a complete betrayal of Biden's promise not to allow more drilling and a complete catastrophe to rein in climate chaos,” and he argued that it would undermine U.S. efforts to convince other nations to restrict their own fossil fuel development and use.

Environmentalists are far from satisfied by the new limits on future oil and gas leasing that Biden paired the announcement with.

“It’s lipstick on a pig,” Jamal Raad, co-founder and senior adviser of the climate group Evergreen Action, told the Post. “This does not negate or discount the climate impacts of the Willow project in any way, shape or form.”

Is the oil industry happy, at least?

The limits on drilling imposed by Biden as part of the Willow project approval have also angered the oil industry, which opposes new limits on future leasing.

“In the current energy crisis, the Biden administration should be focused on strengthening U.S. energy security and standing with the working families of Alaska by supporting the responsible development of federal lands and waters — not acting to restrict it,” Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.