In one of his most controversial decisions so far, President Biden yesterday approved the Willow oil and gas mega-project on the Alaskan North Slope.
Critics of the Willow project liken it to a climate bomb that, when detonated, will produce nearly 300 million tonnes of CO2 and $20 billion of climate-related damage.
According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Willow will also disproportionately impact the community of Nuiqsut, a predominantly Iñupiaq village of about 500 people already suffering extreme pollution from existing oil projects.
Sonia Ahkivgak, from Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA), one of the leading frontline First Nation organizations campaigning against Willow, said: “The Biden administration’s approval makes it clear that its call for climate action and the protection of biodiversity is talk, not action.”
Ahkivgak continued: “The only reasonable solution to the climate emergency is to deny new fossil fuel projects like Willow. Our fight has been long and also it has only begun. We will continue to call for a stop to Willow because the lives of local people and future generations depend on it.”
Willow is a big deal for the local Indigenous communities and the climate. At the cost of $8 billion, it is one of the most significant fossil fuel projects agreed upon in the US in decades. Its owner ConocoPhillips will develop some 200 wells and produce 600 million barrels of oil. On an annual basis, that would translate into just under 10 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to two million extra cars on the road.
As well as carbon dioxide emissions and community impacts, Biden Administration officials also had “substantial concerns” about the impact on freshwater sources and threats to migratory birds, caribou, whales and other animals.
So why has Biden approved such a controversial scheme? The President has faced a barrage of lobbying from the fossil fuel industry and its crony politicians desperate for Willow to be given the green light. Despite this, the New York Times reports that “Willow would be one of the few oil projects that Mr Biden has approved freely, without a court or a congressional mandate.”
In doing so, Biden is ignoring the concerns of the International Energy Agency and the world’s leading climate scientists, who argue we cannot carry on drilling if we want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. He also ignored the online petition signed by over three million people and a viral #StopWillow TikTok campaign.
The fallout from the decision will reverberate around the world. This is Biden’s “read my lips” moment. Back in 1988, at the Republican National Convention, George H. W Bush said, “Read my lips: no new taxes“, only to have to bring in a stealth budget within a year in office, raising several fees and levees.
There is a clip of Joe Biden, as a presidential candidate, saying he is totally opposed to drilling in the Arctic. “No more drilling on federal lands. Period. Period. Period.”
.@JoeBiden approved the Willow project in the Arctic, which has been estimated to produce 287 million tons of carbon dioxide and cause nearly $20 billion in climate change-related damages. ?
— Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) ? (@CJAOurPower) March 13, 2023
Everyone knows that politicians make promises they cannot keep – that the heady promises made in the haste of running for office are forgotten when the reality of office trips them up. You would have expected President Trump to have approved Willow with vigour and relish. But Biden ran as a climate champion. He was hailed America’s first “climate president.” He has warned that rising temperatures are an “existential threat to humanity”.
However, Biden has repeatedly broken his promise and allowed drilling on public lands. According to federal data compiled by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Biden Administration approved 6,430 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first two years, outpacing the Trump Administration’s 6,172 drilling-permit approvals in its first two years.
As a figleaf to his critics over Willow, Biden announced wide-ranging restrictions on offshore oil leasing in the Arctic Ocean and across Alaska’s North. But these will do nothing to tamper the growing outrage about the decision.
The response from other First Nations groups, as well as civil society groups, scientists and politicians has been brutal. The Indigenous Environmental Network Executive Director, Tom Goldtooth, said: “The Biden Administration’s approval of the ConocoPhillips Willow project in Alaska completely erases his campaign on confronting longstanding environmental injustices and disproportionate impacts from climate change on environmental justice communities, such as the Alaska Natives. The project is nothing less than a carbon bomb..”
Civil society groups were united in outrage: Allie Rosenbluth, U.S. Program Manager at OCI, added: “Approving ConocoPhillips’ dirty and dangerous Willow Project is a tremendous strike against President Biden’s legacy on both climate and environmental justice. Biden has again broken his campaign promise to stop oil and gas drilling on federal lands and is approving new drilling at a faster rate than the Trump administration.”
Biden’s approval of this is “a colossal and reprehensible stain on his environmental legacy”, said Raena Garcia, from Friends of the Earth. “President Biden’s decision to move forward with the Willow Project abandons the millions of young people who overwhelmingly came together to demand he stop the project and protect our futures,” added Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement.
“Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn’t make sense, and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The Biden administration appears to be considering tinkering at the margins,” argued Abigail Dillen, President of Earthjustice. “That won’t remedy legal failures to address this project’s outside harms and we expect to see them in court if Willow is approved.”
Professor of Ecology at Oregon State University, Dr. William J. Ripple said: “This will be one of the largest “carbon bombs” on US soil & is a disaster for this fragile Alaskan ecosystem. I am shocked and disappointed with Biden. What was he thinking?”
Even a group of Biden’s Democratic allies, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, attacked the decision as ignoring “the voices of the people of Nuiqsut, our frontline communities, and the irrefutable science that says we must stop building projects like this to slow the ever more devastating impacts of climate change”.
The reaction from Twitter was equally outraged:
.@POTUS pledged to end new drilling on federal lands.
This disastrous decision to approve the Willow Project in Alaska, one of the largest oil development projects in decades, will have devastating consequences on our planet, frontline communities, and wildlife. pic.twitter.com/RAZikTpVTt
— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) March 13, 2023
"Today’s decision completely contradicts the Biden admin's commitment to consider Traditional Ecological Knowledge in federal policy making. The Native Village of Nuiqsut has repeatedly voiced their concerns of how the project will impact local ecosystems" https://t.co/UYOcSmPhGj
— Jade Begay (@_jadebegay) March 13, 2023
— Jamie Sarai Margolin (@Jamie_Margolin) March 13, 2023
I voted for you @POTUS , and this is the opposite of what you promised. Not only climate activists will be angered but all coming generations whose future your decision directly threatens. https://t.co/XyS5yX7yKs
— Prof Lisa Schipper ? ? (@schipper_lisa) March 13, 2023
Biden’s decision will now invite legal challenges, with Earthjustice saying it will start legal proceedings tomorrow.