On March 13, 2023, the Biden Administration approved the Willow Project, an oil-drilling project located on Alaska’s North Slope. Three oil rigs were approved to be built, two less than the original plan that ConocoPhillips’ had approved by the Trump administration.
The project is set to bring in 600 million barrels of oil, but it will not hit the market for the next decade. The approval of the project has had mixed reactions both from Alaskan natives and from climate activists throughout the United States.
There have been significant concerns raised about the impact that the Willow Project will have on native ecosystems and how it will affect indigenous tribes on the Northern Slope.
“It’s very close to a bunch of native tribes in the northern Alaska area,” said Collin Ordiway (‘23), President of the Leaders for Environmental Awareness, Protection, and Sustainability (LEAPS) Club. “A lot of people are going to be losing their natural ecosystem… it’s been said that [the drilling] is going to mess up caribou migration patterns.”
“The people that live near the sites will experience firsthand the health issues that will be caused by the environmental impacts,” said Ruby Lovasz, a recent graduate and Environmental Studies Major. Activists have pointed out that the issue is not whether the project will cause damage to the area surrounding the oil drills, but how much damage they will cause.
Despite the outcry against the approval of the project, groups of locals and Alaskan Politicians have celebrated the jobs that the construction of these rigs will bring to the Northern Slopes. According to ConocoPhillips’ website, three hundred permanent jobs will be greeted after the construction of the oil rigs. However, most of the work will come from the up-front construction of the three approved rigs.
“The jobs related to oil extraction … those jobs are right up front, so [ConocoPhillips’] can say that they’re going to employ 1,500/2,00 people. Those jobs go away once you’ve established the infrastructure for the project,” said Murray Borello, Director and Chair of Environmental Studies.
“The amount of jobs in fossil fuel are below the number of jobs that are in renewable energy sources in this country right now,” said Borrello. While ConocoPhillips has focused on the future creation of three hundred permanent jobs, the bulk of the work that will boost Alaska’s economy will disappear after construction is complete.
The Biden-Harris Administration has also announced new protections for Alaskan land along with the approval of the Willow Project. Over 13 million acres of land in the National Petroleum Reserve will be protected from oil drilling, along with the US Arctic Ocean being protected from any future oil and gas leasing. Despite the increase in protections, Native groups and activists do not think this will offset the damage that the drilling will cause.
“I can say that, in my many years of doing geology and environmental science, I’ve never seen or read about a sight where they were drilling for oil where it did not have some sort of negative environmental impact,” said Borrello. With scientists predicting that the damage to Earth’s climate will become irreversible, activists and native groups fear that the Willow Project is another step closer to environmental disaster.