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Earlier this week, the Biden administration approved one of the largest oil developments on federal land, a decision that came after months of intense lobbying and objections that the project known as Willow would undermine US efforts to phase out fossil fuels worldwide.
For weeks, this Alaskan oil well, more than 4,000 miles from the White House, became the focus of the nationwide climate change debate.
It captivated activists and young people who banded together online to try to block it. For Alaskan leaders and some residents, it was the most important federal decision their state faced, and many called for it as an economic boon. Oil industry leaders have said this is key to their future relationship with President Biden.
Here’s what you need to know about Willow.
Where is the Willow Project taking place?
Willow is an oil reserve in arctic Alaska controlled by oil company ConocoPhillips. It is on Alaska’s North Slope, less than 30 miles from the Arctic Ocean.
The region lies within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A, the nation’s largest public land. The region, about the size of Indiana, was first recognized by President Warren G. Harding in 1923 and specifically designated for oil and gas development by the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act. The law created special rules for oil and gas exploration and set them apart from some areas for “maximum protection” of the environment. Today it is one of the most promising regions in the US for new oil, but is also an important habitat for polar bears and tens of thousands of migratory caribou and waterfowl.
The Willow Project Explained
Willow is now the largest oil project under consideration in the country, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie. ConocoPhillips estimates its cost at $8 billion to $10 billion.
That has also made it a top priority for climate activists. They are pushing to reduce fossil fuel use to reduce the emissions that cause climate change and have tried to halt big investments like this to push the world away from oil. This project is particularly vulnerable to public interference because it is on federal land and requires federal permits to move forward — and Biden had promised to end new oil drilling on federal land.
ConocoPhillips has held oil exploration leases in the region since the late 1990s and discovered Willow with two exploration wells drilled in 2016. After about five years of permitting and litigation, the Biden administration approved the project with up to three drill sites totaling 199 wells. It downsized the project from the five pads ConocoPhillips originally proposed and followed recommendations from a government review to keep development away from a yellow-billed grebe nesting site and caribou migration trails.
What will Willow do?
The Bureau of Land Management estimates that Willow could produce 576 million barrels of oil in 30 years.
Initial gravel removal and roadworks have already begun for the development, which the administration has determined will total 499 acres. For comparison, that’s two and a half times the area that the Washington Commanders recently acquired to build a new soccer stadium. Willow’s plan includes hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine and a new processing plant amidst pristine arctic tundra and wetlands.
Burning Willow’s oil would also release an estimated 239 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the 30-year life of the project — or the equivalent of driving 1.7 million gasoline-powered cars a year. This number assumes that no other oil producers would fill the gap if the ConocoPhillips project did not move ahead.
According to estimates by the Biden administration, even if Willow is not built, the United States and the rest of the world will still burn a large amount of fossil fuels. Cleaner options, it was estimated, would provide only about half of the energy needs that Willow could have met.
Willow would cause about 70 million tons of additional CO2 from the project in U.S. emissions in the future — and an additional 60 million tons internationally — which is estimated to be just 0.03 percent of U.S. emissions in 2021.
What are the pros and cons of the willow project?
Proponents say new Alaskan oil will help ensure the US has a reliable, domestic energy supply. This is important to limit the country’s and its allies’ dependence on oil suppliers, which often operate under authoritarian regimes and weak environmental regulations. Willow is also estimated to generate billions of dollars in economic activity and tax revenue in Alaska, where state leaders and many Alaska Natives say they need to give a boost to the flagging economy.
But access to such oil could also help prolong the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, with no guarantees that the technology is in place to stop its contribution to climate change. Since the Biden administration approved it, the project could also undermine the president’s credibility in pushing other countries to develop cleaner alternatives to oil and natural gas. And many locals are less than enthusiastic about the oil revenues and more concerned that the project could harm local animal populations vital to the community, degrade the area’s air quality and lead to spills, leaks and explosions associated with major oil production can.
Despite its environmental promises, why did Biden approve Willow?
Activists aggressively protested Willow, in part because Biden had made big promises to prioritize environmental protection, climate change and an end to drilling on public lands. Administration officials said these were important issues affecting the project but not enough to stop it.
They said that instead they were limited by the law that governs NPR-A and the leases that ConocoPhillips held long before the Biden administration took office. The law gives a company with such leases the right to develop and strong legal standing to take action against the government if it tries to block that work. If rejected, ConocoPhillips could have sued, potentially winning billions of dollars at taxpayer expense and still develop the project, legal experts said.
Other factors could also have played a role. Biden has been heavily influenced by Alaskan officials on this issue while he was president, and needs two of them — moderate Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) — to get his appointments and agenda through a tightly divided Congress. He has also promised voters he will fight high oil and gasoline prices, and has acknowledged in recent months that oil will likely have a place in the economy far into the future. His biggest climate policy yet has focused more on expanding and encouraging consumers to adopt cleaner energy than on limiting fossil fuel production.
Shannon Osaka contributed coverage.