The Willow Project: Pumping Gas into the House Fire that is Climate Change

By: Gila Kalman  |  May 10, 2023

By Gila Kalman 

What is Willow?

On March 13, 2023, the Biden administration signed off on one of the most controversial environmental decisions of the year: The Willow Project. One of the largest oil projects in the country, Willow is projected to cost anywhere between 8 and 10 million dollars. The Willow Project was proposed by the American multinational oil company, ConocoPhillips, and was initially approved by the Trump administration in 2020. Dubbed the National Petroleum Reserve, the region where Willow is to take place was designated specifically for oil production under the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act. Certain areas within the reserve were set aside as protected land in order to preserve parts of the habitat. Due to Willow’s status as federally protected land, federal approval is vital to moving the project forward. 

Why is Willow So Controversial? 

Willow quickly became controversial as talks of its commencement began to resurface during the Biden administration. While Willow had been approved by the Trump administration, Biden had the power to overturn that decision and not allow the project to begin. Instead, however, Willow will go forward with certain limitations that Biden has required. He has reduced the original five drill pads to three, still allowing ConocoPhillips to drill 90% of what they originally wanted. Many feel that this decision is a betrayal of the trust they had put in Biden. One of the most key elements to Biden’s campaign and eventual election was his firm stance on environmental protection. During his campaign, Biden made a pledge to focus on clean and renewable energy, saying that “by 2050, the United States will be a 100% clean energy economy.” Despite his promises, Biden has turned a blind eye and let the show go on- leaving many feeling as though he has gone back on his initial claims of creating a more environmentally conscious country. These feelings led to widespread lobbying against Willow. Over one million letters have been written to the white house, the petition ‘Say no to the Willow Project’ has gained more than 5 million signatures, and organizations like the nonprofit EarthJustice are suing to stop the drilling before it starts. This action is not unfounded. Willow could prove detrimental for the environment, having a total footprint of 499 acres and creating 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. According to Professor Herb Leventer, “The Willow Project itself obviously is not a make or break thing, but it’s symbolic of a type of activity which is really suicidal for the environment”. Leventer is a professor of philosophy at Stern College for Women and specializes in medical ethics. He is highly invested in issues like the Willow Project as he sees environmental ethics as an extension of his strong science background. 

Biden’s Compromise

Some supporters of Willow are eager to have an energy supply that does not rely on unreliable foreign governments while others are excited about the influx of money and jobs to the Alaskan economy.  “So,” says Leventer, “he (Biden) thinks he’s made a nice compromise, and on the face of it it looks like a nice compromise.” Leventer explains that this ‘compromise’ would please Biden’s supporters in Alaska while adding limitations to the project- everyone’s happy. Right? Wrong. Leventer says this idea of a strengthened Alaskan economy is a “false claim” made by oil companies. In reality, ConocoPhillips will eventually stop needing Alaskan workers and the majority of money made from oil sales will go to the company, not Alaska. In fact, not only will it only temporarily help Alaska, it will hurt them far more in the long run. Alaska “will suffer 10-20 years down the line” says Leventer, “and for the next ten years, there’ll be a brief influx of money and jobs”. While both sides of the argument are understandable, Leventer feels that allowing the project to go forward is “just over the line of unacceptable, and from his (Biden’s) point of view, it’s just before the line of unacceptable”. 

Alternative Action 

This action, from Leventer’s view, wasn’t the only way Biden could have gone. He says Biden “could have withdrawn his approval in a clever way” by forcing the oil company to pay for the cleanup and pay substantial fines for any mess they do cause. Oil spills happen because there are not enough sanctions on companies dictating how the drilling should be done in a way that is safer and healthier for the environment. If oil companies are not forced to put safety measures into place, why would they spend the money to be careful? The answer is, they won’t and they don’t. The obvious solution is to make a spill more expensive for the company than safety and cleanup is, argues Leventer. However, he does still feel that although this would be a better solution, it should only happen if the drilling will without a doubt continue. Drilling for oil is not something that should ever really happen, says Leventer, because “Once you build a road in the tundra of Alaska, you can’t undo it. You’ve destroyed the natural environment.”  As an alternative, he suggests supporting the Alaskan economy in more permanent and environmentally friendly ways, such as opening up factories to build clean energy. 

The Future of Environmentalism 

The Willow Project is not just bad on its own, but it is another large-scale event that will bring the earth closer and closer to its breaking point. With climate change come severe natural disasters that are felt first by island countries, but will nonetheless be felt by all of us eventually.“When it’s in our face”, says Leventer “it will be too late to do anything about it.” Leventer is adamant that no matter how justifiable, any extraction of oil is unacceptable as we get closer to the point of no return in climate change. 

So what do we do? The planet is dying faster every day. The ice caps are melting, the sea level is rising, the ocean is acidifying, and everywhere there are real people suffering because of it. As dismal as the picture looks, and as hopeless as climate change reversal becomes, Leventer feels strongly that as fighters of truth and justice, we should never stop pushing back against the institutions which threaten the ground we stand on. We do what we can as citizens. We change our habits and adopt a more conscious mindset. We lobby for policies that attempt climate change reversal. We build communities based on love for the earth and its creatures, not disdain. There is still so much more we can do to breathe life back into our resilient planet. “We shouldn’t be discouraged,” Leventer assures “even though it’s very discouraging.” Although Willow has been approved, this is not the end of the story just yet.