As Joe Biden deliberates on the Willow project, the climate and indigenous people hang in the balance

willow project
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As the planet teeters on the brink of climate catastrophe, US president Joe Biden may be about to approve an Arctic drilling project of monumental proportions.

As CNN reported on 2 March:

The Willow Project, proposed by ConocoPhillips, is a massive and decades long oil drilling venture on Alaska’s North Slope

Unsurprisingly, scientists, climate activists, and a significant proportion of affected indigenous groups have been opposing the project. Moreover, under the hashtag #StopWillow, there’s also been a great deal of public opposition to the plans.

Critics have said Willow would undermine Biden’s credibility on climate policy. It clearly goes against Biden’s own purported climate goals, including a pledge to stop new oil drilling on federal (i.e. US government-owned) land. However, pressure from Alaska state officials and some Native groups, as well as the possibility of legal challenges, has made his decision harder.

Willow project: climate implications

Oil giant ConocoPhillips has been seeking US government approval for the project, which involves drilling in a federal oil reserve, since 2018. On 1 February, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its final environmental impact statement (EIS). Following this, a decision from the Biden administration is due as early as next week.

But the implications for the climate are undeniable. According to CNN:

Read on...

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By the administration’s own estimates, the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year …

Over the course of 30 years, climate groups have estimated it would release around 278 million metric tons of carbon pollution, which is more than what 70 coal-fired power plants could produce every year.

Furthermore, in an open letter, environment charity Evergreen Action raised serious concerns about the omission of potential methane gas emissions from BLM’s EIS, saying the statement:

provides incomplete analysis of projected methane emissions from the Willow Project. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, over 25 times as potent than CO2 in trapping heat in our atmosphere. Measured over a 20-year period, this ratio balloons to 84-86 times as potent…

BLM fails to properly account for the compounding release of methane due to increased permafrost melting caused by climate change. Rather concerningly, BLM also does not account for any methane emissions that would result from venting.

Originally, the company sought permission for five drilling sites. BLM’s latest EIS suggested reducing these to three. Now, according to recent reports, the government is considering cutting these down to two in order to address environmentalists’ concerns. But this isn’t enough of a compromise for climate advocates. As one such person, who’s been in discussions with the White House, told CNN:

I don’t see people rejoicing in the climate community over any amount of drill pads being opened up in the petroleum reserve.

As we know, it’s poor, indigenous communities that feel the effects of climate change most acutely. One advocacy group for Inupiat peoples, called Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA), has been campaigning against Willow. SILA’s website says:

The Willow Master Development Plan is incompatible with any efforts to combat the climate crisis. The clock is ticking and we have, at most, 10 years to avoid catastrophic outcomes of the climate crisis. Not only would Willow contribute to this inevitable result if passed, this project would also disproportionately affect the community of Nuiqsut, a predominantly Iñupiaq village of about 500 people already living through extreme pollution from existing oil projects. [emphasis in original]

Indigenous people in opposition

AP reported that supporters of the Willow project have framed the venture as “an economic lifeline for Indigenous communities in the region”. Mary Peltola, US Congress representative for Alaska who is from the indigenous Yup’ik tribe, said there’s “consensus in the region and across Alaska that this project is a good project”.

Many Alaska Natives have also voiced their support, maybe because, as the Washington Post reported, they “stand to receive a slice of the revenue”. And those aiming to get approval for the project are also framing support from less affected indigenous communities as “majority consensus” from indigenous people in the North Slope region.

But while there may be a tendency in the media to portray indigenous communities in Alaska as a monolith, reality is much more nuanced:

According to SILA:

While many Iñupiat are in support of oil development, there are still many that are on the fence and some that oppose. There is a misconception that our Native corporations represent all community members’ opinions. SILA is one of the few organizations that openly speaks against oil development. …

This project is a human rights issue as well as a climate issue. SILA urges the Bureau of Land Management to reassess their alternatives to include the community members of Nuiqsut’s recommendations to mitigate harm.

The Nuiqsut community, living nearest to the proposed development, is particularly concerned about Willow’s local impacts. Nuiqsut city mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak is worried about the project’s impact on caribou populations and the subsistence lifestyles of Nuiqsut residents. She represents a community of about 500 people.

Alaska-based indigenous rights group Native Movement tweeted a video of Ahtuangaruak earlier in February. She expressed concerns about serious, frequent respiratory and neurological conditions in her community, emphasising that:

We’re only seeing more and more oil and gas development projects being promoted for profitability over our life, health, and safety. The Willow project should not be approved. The risk for our village is too high, and we are not the acceptable cost for approval of this project.

Native Movement has also been on the forefront of opposition to the Willow project. On 1 March, it shared an earlier statement written by Ahtuangaruak, who is also an Advisory Board Member at the organisation:

Moreover, Native Movement is calling on people to write to Deb Haaland, US Interior Department secretary, and other senior officials to oppose Willow. SILA has also provided a list of contacts and draft text so people can write to government officials and apply pressure to reject the proposals.

Wider opposition to the Willow project

Many environment groups and charities have also been advocating for the US government to reject the proposals. Among them is Earthjustice, a group that may also bring a legal challenge against the government if it approves the project:

Earthjustice has also tweeted in support of Nuiqsut people, as has Friends of the Earth:

And Greenpeace USA posted a Twitter thread, encouraging people to write to Biden:

There has also been a considerable amount of support on social media using the hashtag #StopWillow. Several TikTok videos have been circulated by people on Twitter too, indicating that many young people also care about the outcome:

David and Goliath

Ultimately, this is a familiar story. A giant, capitalist corporation against poor, local community members, launching a project purely for the sake of its own profit. It’s David versus Goliath – where Goliath is a multi-billion dollar company easily capable of influencing decision-makers with its deep pockets.

The scales are tipped against the people of Nuiqsut and their neighbours, as well as all the other indigenous communities around the world who will be among the first to face climate-related destruction. We must keep applying pressure on Biden’s government to reject the proposals in their entirety. No amount of carbon offsetting will be able to make up for the scale of projected emissions from the Willow project.

Environment and advocacy charities have launched a number of online petitions and calls to action against Willow. Most notably, a petition on has been signed by more than 2.3 million people. So, Biden may well be under pressure from ConocoPhillips and Alaska lawmakers – but the chorus of voices speaking out in support of the planet, and the people of Nuiqsut, are becoming harder for him to ignore.

Featured image via YouTube screenshot/Earthjustice Action

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