What is the Willow Project and why has it sparked backlash?

As Biden’s administration deliberates whether to greenlight a controversial scheme to expand oil infrastructure on Alaska’s North Slope, environmental campaigners are urging him to reject it.

Thred Media
4 min readMar 14

Update 13/03/23: After a long contentious process, the Biden administration has approved the Willow Project. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management said that the decision ‘strikes a balance’ by allowing ConocoPhillips to ‘use its longstanding leases in the Arctic,’ while also limiting drilling to three sites rather than five. The news has been met with outrage among environmental campaigners who say it fatally undermines the President’s climate agenda. ‘After all that this administration has done to advance climate action and environmental justice, it is heartbreaking to see a decision that we know will poison Arctic communities and lock in decades of climate pollution we simply cannot afford,’ said Lena Moffitt, executive director of Evergreen Action.

This week, Biden’s administration is expected to finalise its decision on whether to approve the $6bn ConocoPhillips Willow Project.

If it goes through, the decades-long petroleum drilling venture on Alaska’s North Slope would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution annually, by the federal government’s estimate.

This is roughly equal to the combined emissions from two million passenger cars over the same time period.

Supporters of the scheme claim it would create thousands of jobs and be a new source of revenue for the petroleum-rich region.

This is because it would represent the biggest US oil field in decades — ‘one of the most important resource development projects in our state’s history’ as defined by Republican Senator Dan Sullivan — capable of producing around 1.5% of the country’s total oil.

But opponents fear that the obviously catastrophic repercussions of annual emissions equivalent to 76 coal-fired power plants operating in a single year would be adding fuel to a global climate system that’s already ablaze.

Moreover, it would threaten an increasingly fragile area that acts as an ancestral homeland to various Native communities and a critical habitat for walruses and caribou.

As a result, the scheme has become a lightning rod on social media, with TikTok users in particular galvanising around urging Biden to reject it.

So far, the debate online has amassed millions of views, a spot on TikTok’s top 10 trending list, and a substantial amount of tangible action IRL.

In fact, more than one million letters have now been written to the White House protesting Willow and almost three million people (and counting) have signed a Change.org petition doing the same.

‘ConocoPhillips, the company that has proposed this project, claims that Willow would help address inflation and energy costs. The US is already the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, despite the oil and gas industry’s vigorous and incorrect public relations campaigns aimed at convincing people that their opportunism to drill more is a legitimate policy solution,’ it reads.

‘Even if the Willow project was approved, it would do nothing to address inflation or high energy costs. It would take years before Willow produced a single drop of oil, and the project would lock us into decades of fossil fuel development at a time when we need to be rapidly transitioning to clean energy sources.’

Many have cited Biden’s supposed dedication to fighting the crisis and backing of landmark laws to accelerate the expansion of clean energy in the US as deceitful amid his current deliberations.

They would consequently deem his approval of Willow a betrayal, especially considering that during his 2020 election campaign, Biden promised to end new oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

For this reason, the President is under immense pressure from both sides.

Those who say Willow would be a boon to the state’s ailing economy are arguing that the financial fallout of passing on it would be too devastating to comprehend.

And those committed to safeguarding the natural world are remaining steadfast in their opposition to a scheme they assert would have even more devastating impacts than a temporary blow to the economy.

Regardless, Biden will have to issue a final decision, and soon.

‘The biggest message we’re sending out loud today is that now is the time for the Biden administration to lead us into a just transition off of fossil fuels and into a more regenerative economy,’ says Karlin Nageak Itchoak, senior regional director for The Wilderness Society’s Arctic region.

‘The only responsible action here for President Biden is to cancel Willow.’

Originally written by Sofia Phillips for Thred.



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