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3 reasons the Willow Arctic oil drilling project was approved: It’s the latest battle in a long battle for Alaska’s North Slope


For more than six decades, Alaska’s North Slope has been at the center of intense controversy over oil development and wilderness protection, with no end in sight. Willow Field, recently a 600 million barrel, $8 billion oil project approved by the Biden administrationto indignation of environmental and climate activists – is the latest chapter in that long saga.

To understand why President Joe Biden allowed the project despite his vow”no more drilling on federal land, periodduring his campaign for president, some historical background is necessary, along with a closer look at the ways domestic and international fears complicate any decision for or against future oil development on the North Slope.

More than just Willow

The Willow Project is located in a vast 23 million acre area known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. This was one of four such reserves set aside in the early 20th century to ensure supplies of oil for the US military. Although no production existed in NPR-A at the time, geological information and oil spills surfaced suggested great sources over the North Slope.

The proof came with the discovery of the supergiant in 1968 Prudhoe Bay fieldwhich started producing oil in 1977. However, exploratory programs in the NPR-A found only small oil accumulations suitable for local use.

Then, in the 2000s, new geological understanding and advanced exploration technology led to companies renting parts of the reserve, and soon they were making major fossil fuel discoveries. Because NPR-A is federal land, any development requires government approval. Most have now been approved. Willow is the newest.

Caribou in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska are important to indigenous groups. However, Indigenous communities are also divided over support for drilling, which can generate revenue.
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management, CC DOOR

Opposition to North Slope drilling from conservationists, environmental groups and some Indigenous communities, mainly in support of wilderness conservation, has been fierce since the opening of Prudhoe Bay and the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. In the aftermath of the oil crises of the 1970s, opponents failed to stop development.

For the next four decades, controversy shifted east to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Republican presidents and congressional leaders repeatedly tried to open the refuge to drilling, but were consistently suppressed — until 2017. That year, the Trump administration opened it up for rent. Ironically, no companies were interested. Oil prices had fallen, the risk was great and the reputational damage was great.

West of the refuge, however, a series of new discoveries in NPR-A and adjacent state lands are drawing attention as a major new oil game with billions of barrels of potential. Oil prices had risen and, although falling again in 2020, were mostly above $70 a barrel – high enough to encourage major new developments.

Map of Northern Alaska with NPRA on the west and ANWR on the east.  The Willow area is located in the northeast corner of the NPRA.
ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project is located in the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
USGS, Department of the Interior

Opposition, with little success

Opposition to the new Willow project has been prompted by concerns about the effects of drilling on wildlife and about the increasing use of fossil fuels for the climate. Willow’s oil is estimated at capable of releasing 287 million tons of carbon dioxide if refined into fuels and consumed.

Opponents in particular have focused on a planned pipeline that will extend existing infrastructure further west, deeper into NPR-A, and likely encourage further exploratory drilling.

That resistance has so far met with little success.

Located twenty miles south of Willow the Peregrine Discovery Area, estimated to contain about 1.6 billion barrels of oil. Its development was approved by the Biden administration in late 2022. To the east is the Discovery area Pikka horseshoe, with about 2 billion barrels. It will probably also get approval. Other NPR-A drillings have occurred in the Southwest (Harpoon prospect), northeast (Cassin), and southeast (Stirrup).

Young protesters hold a sign that reads, “President Biden: Keep Your Climate Promises.  Stop Willow.'
Young protesters in Washington in 2022 urged Biden to reject the Willow project.
Jemal Gravin/Getty Images for Sunrise AU

Questions about legality

One of the reasons the Biden administration approved the Willow project concerns legality: ConocoPhillips has the leases and has the legal right to drill. Canceling the leases would trigger a lawsuit that, if lost, would set a precedent, cost the government millions of dollars in fees, and do nothing to stop oil drilling.

Instead, the government made a deal with ConocoPhillips reduce the total area of ​​Willow to be developed by 60%, including removing a fragile natural area known as Teshekpuk Lake. The Biden administration also announced that it would purchase 13 million acres of NPR-A and all of the federal waters of the Arctic Ocean. off-limits to new leases.

However, that has done little to stem anger over the project’s approval. Two groups already sued above approval.

Taking into account future risks

To further understand Biden’s endorsement of the Willow project, one must also look into the future.

Discoveries in the northeastern NPR-A suggest that this will become an important new oil production area for the US. not expected there for several yearswill its timing coincide with a predicted plateau or decline in US total production later this decade, due to what one shale company CEO described as the end of aggressive shale oil growth.

Historically, declines in domestic supply have led to higher fuel prices and imports. High petrol and diesel prices, with their inflationary consequences, could weaken the political party in power. While current prices and inflation haven’t hurt Biden and the Democrats too much, there’s nothing to guarantee it will stay that way.

Geopolitical concerns, especially Europe

The Biden administration is also currently under geopolitical pressure because of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

American companies increased exports of oil and natural gas in the past year a lifeline for Europe as used by the European Union sanctions and bans on Russian fossil fuel imports to try to weaken the Kremlin’s ability to finance its war against Ukraine. Imports from the US have been able to do that largely replaced of the Russian supply that Europe once counted on.

The energy crisis in Europe has also led to the return of energy security as a top priority of national leaders worldwide. The crisis has undoubtedly made it clear that oil and gas are still crucial to the global economy. The Biden administration takes the position that supply is significantly reduced – needed as it is to prevent harmful climate change – cannot be done by ban alone. Stopping new drilling worldwide would drive fuel prices skyrocketing, weaken economies and affect the climate problem.

Energy transitions depend on changes in demand, not just supply. As an energy scientist, I believe that improving the affordability of electric vehicles and the infrastructure they need would do much more to reduce oil consumption than banning drilling activities. Although it may seem counterintuitive, US fossil fuel exports, by promoting European economic stability, could also contribute to the EU’s plan to accelerate the use of low-carbon energy in the coming years.

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