When Joe Biden ran for president in 2020, as all politicians do, he made many promises in his campaign. Among those was a focus on environmental justice and clean energy; he pledged to make any necessary changes to ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050, according to his official campaign site.
In addition, he promised to fight back against fossil fuel companies “who put profit over people and knowingly harm the environment” when they contribute to land, air, and water pollution and knowingly attempt to conceal information about potential impacts on public health. A recent example of this would be the train crash in East Palestine, Ohio, and its ongoing environmental crisis.
In the next few days, Biden will decide whether to approve The Willow Project, a proposed Alaska oil drilling project from ConocoPhillips, an American petroleum refinery company. First introduced in 2017, the project has been pending approval since the Trump administration, being slowly pared down to try and reduce its predicted environmental impact. Implementing this project that would extend over multiple decades has benefits in terms of global energy production and job creation. Still, it would go against Bidens promises to pull away from fossil fuel companies and towards clean energy, not to mention the actual environmental impact.
To begin, let's discuss more specifically what the predicted effect on the environment will be. A supplemental environmental impact study conducted by the U.S. Department of the Interior the Willow Project raises substantial concerns about indirect and direct greenhouse gas emissions and a health impact on wildlife and Alaska Natives.
This is no surprise, given that the oil and gas industries are known for being huge contributors to pollution through their extraction practices. They produce a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas that is even more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. In fact, a WildEarth Guardian study reported that the industries are responsible for 38% of all methane emissions in the United States; we need to be burning fewer fossil fuels to slow global warming, not drilling for more.
Moreover, if approved, the Willow project would be responsible for producing 600 million barrels of oil, which would end up releasing 287 million tons of carbon emissions into our atmosphere, according to the Center for American Progress. Even though this will happen over a 30-year timeline, this would give this one project almost the same pollution impact as a third of all the coal power plants in the U.S. However, its negative impacts go beyond greenhouse gas emissions. The official Willow Master Development Plan predicts 676.5 acres of habitat disturbance for polar bears, an increasingly endangered species already due to global warming effects from burning fossil fuels like the ones that will be produced via this project. Other species like waterfowl and caribou will also have their habitats threatened by the project; caribou is an essential resource for many Native communities.
Furthermore, the same plan says the project will use 1,478.7 million gallons of freshwater between what it takes to get it constructed and running and what it will need once it begins extracting oil. Who knows what implications this may have regarding access to clean water for Alaska Natives living around the development area? The project would negatively impact many aspects of the environment when prioritizing clean energy, and pollution reduction has never been more critical.
That being said, the project is not without its benefits or supporters. Though many natives are opposed to the project, given how it would disrupt their historical survival infrastructure and the environment in general, others see the project as an opportunity to bring much-needed revenue and recognition to the area.
In response to critics, ConocoPhillips says the project will create over 2,000 jobs during its construction phase and 300 long-term positions, and in total require over 9-million-man hours to finish. This is an exciting prospect for many Native communities, for whom the average household income is lower than non-minority groups, leaving them constantly searching for job opportunities. On top of that, ConocoPhillips estimates $8.7 billion in royalties and tax revenues from the project, $1.4 billion of which will go right back to the State of Alaska to use for other programs. This is an undeniable benefit for the state and why many Alaskan politicians advocate for this project despite the obvious environmental concerns.
In summation, The Willow Project will contribute heavily to greenhouse gas production, habitat destruction, and other environmental factors if the Biden administration approves it. This would completely go against much of what the president promised during his campaign and take a step in the wrong direction regarding environmental protection, which would require significant changes to other fuel industries to account for it.
If you feel strongly about stopping the pipeline from being constructed, it is not too late to make your voice heard. You can submit your thoughts to government officials through Protect the Arctic organization.
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