As an Atlanta teen, I’ve heard very little about the Biden Administration approving the Willow Project in March, aside from social media. This is the same with most teens. When asked how they know about the Willow Project, Sage, a fellow VMC member said, “I’ve seen the stuff on TikTok about how it’s oil drilling in Alaska, but I haven’t seen anything about it on the news.”
Due to my age, I’ve found little opportunities to witness and interfere with government actions, but I believe that it’s my duty to help bring attention to this plan. According to the Washington Post, the Willow Project is planned to be one of the largest oil drilling projects in United States history. When this project is put into action, it could affect not only the United States, but the world.
What is it?
The Willow Project is an oil drilling project set to be implemented in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. The National Petroleum Reserve holds up to 600 million barrels of oil. The project was proposed by an energy company called ConocoPhillips, and shortly after proposal it was approved by the Trump administration in 2020. Since President Joe Biden came into office, the project had to be re-approved. According to journalist Ella Nilsen at CNN, legally, the Biden administration doesn’t have enough power to ever fully stop or greatly reduce the size and impact of the project; though they worked with ConocoPhillips representatives to reduce the size from five to three drill pads. The project was re-approved by the Biden administration on March 13, 2023.
The Willow Project will ensure that the US has a reliable, consistent supply of energy without help from foreign countries. It’s estimated to produce billions of dollars of economic activity and tax revenue in Alaska. These extra dollars will fund much needed services like education and healthcare. For those who drive, this project will greatly decrease gas prices which are a big concern in American households.
Though the project proves to be opportunistic for the Alaskan economy, there are many negative effects that could outweigh the positive ones. First, efforts the U.S. has made to wean away from fossil fuels will be hindered. When I interviewed Jenny Rowland-Shea, Director of Public Lands at the Center for American Progress, she stated that this project “is not aligned with where the United States needs to be.” When asking Adam Hayes, fellow VOX ATL associate, about his opinion on the state of the world when it comes to climate change, he responded with “it’s rather dismal… people only think about the economy, not how it affects the planet or the people.”
Local Alaskan animal populations could be greatly threatened, like the already endangered polar bear and caribou. When speaking with VOX ATL, Ms. Rowland-Shea referred to this project as a “potential climate disaster in the making.”
Washington Post climate correspondent, Timothy Puko, has explained that the Willow Project is projected to release up to 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, with an additional 70 million tons in U.S. emissions, overall degrading the air quality of the region and the country.
Negligence due to necessary drilling conditions will most likely be the cause of oil spills, leaks, and blowouts. An article by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that, “Animals and Americans are still recovering from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill,” which resulted in a major loss of resources and habitat. Rowland-Shea informed me of the gas leak that another ConocoPhillips project caused last year in Anchorage, Alaska. The leak destroyed a local community, causing many people to relocate.
Environmental Organizations vs. The Willow Project
Due to the major environmental impact of this project, many activist groups have sued ConocoPhillips in hopes to delay the project. The Defenders of Wildlife, represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to litigating environmental issues and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued ConocoPhillips on March 13th, citing climate impacts. On April 3, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled in favor of ConocoPhillips, allowing work on the $8 million project to move forward.
Apart from lawsuits, various pro-environment petitions have been created, one having over five million signatures. During our interview, I asked Rowland-Shea at the if these petitions are effective. She told me, “I think that the White House was perhaps even surprised on how much engagement there already was on the Willow Project, especially from young people. Then continuing to use your voices and sign petitions is showing there’s strength in numbers, and people are watching what’s going on in Congress.”
How Will This Affect Atlanta Teens and Future Generations?
Due to the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide, air pollution will only become worse. Air pollution can cause or worsen illnesses like lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which already threaten the lives of many.
Two of the most noticeable effects of climate change are rising sea level and habitat loss. This project will cause an increase in the rate at which Arctic ice sheets are melting. When the Arctic Circle melts, all the water around the United States coast will rise. Cities like Miami and some of Georgia’s barrier islands are already dealing with rapid sea level rise. Living in Atlanta, many people visit Florida or Carolina beaches. When the sea level rises, those beaches will no longer be available to inland tourists for summer vacation.
When advertising climate change, there’s always a picture of an animal on melted ice. Since Alaska has such a unique climate and environment, many animals could become extinct due to the impact that the Willow Project will have on the natural habitat. Many animal rights activists are concerned about the effect that the project will have on caribou and polar bears that reside in Alaska.
Fall of 2022 was one of the hottest autumn seasons in Atlanta history. This is a direct result of climate change. Knowing that this project will increase the melting of glacial ice, it will also cause a huge temperature spike. This is because less glacial ice means less reflective heat worldwide, resulting in an increase in temperature. So although it is hot now, the temperature will only increase more rapidly with this project underway.
How Soon Will This Take Effect?
The Willow Project is expected to start in 2027. Over 30 years, 600 million barrels of oil will be produced. The project will need to be finished with haste due to the seasonal ice roads being crucial to the development of the project.
The Willow Project is a rapidly developing plan that could create great environmental changes throughout the world. Changing the economy, climate, and world for better or for worse. So now that you know a bit more about it, how do you feel about the Willow Project?