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Biden's Approval Of An Alaskan Oil Project And Its Projected Impact On The Environment

Miruna Demian, XII A

Last month, on March 13, Biden's administration approved the massive Willow oil drilling project in Alaska. Why should this matter to the rest of the world?

ConocoPhillips controls Willow, an oil reserve located on Alaska's North Slope in Arctic Alaska, less than 50 kilometres from the Arctic Ocean. The area is part of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the largest piece of public land in the country and is home to thousands of migrating caribou, waterfowl, and polar bears. The oil company views this large public-lands area as the "next great Alaska hub" for oil development, claiming to have identified a vast amount of oil, potentially totalling 3 billion barrels, that can only be accessed with the Willow infrastructure in place.

ConocoPhillips, a major oil company that earned $18.7 billion in 2022, has been granted initial approval to drill in three locations for oil. Willow, located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, is the largest proposed oil extraction project on federal lands. It is predicted to release more than 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the next 30 years, which is equivalent to the emissions from 66 coal-fired power plants or 56 million vehicles in one year. The project plans to construct up to 250 wells, 37 miles of roads, 389 miles of pipelines, airstrips, and a new central processing facility, and as a result, would contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than any other project proposed on public lands in America. This will significantly hinder efforts to meet emission reduction targets and keep global warming below 2º Celsius. The United States is the second-largest emitter of climate pollution in the world, behind China.

The entire project received initial approval several years ago from the Trump administration, but in 2021, a federal judge in Alaska overturned the decision. The judge ruled that the environmental analysis was inadequate and required revision.

So, why did Biden approve Willow, despite his environmental pledges?

Alaskan officials have been lobbying President Biden on the issue since the start of his presidency, and he requires the support of two of them - Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Representative Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) - to pass his appointees and agenda through a closely divided Congress. Biden has also made promises to voters to combat high oil and gasoline prices and has acknowledged that oil is likely to play a significant role in the economy for the foreseeable future.

Environmental activists strongly opposed the Willow project, especially since President Biden had made significant commitments to prioritize environmental protection, combat climate change, and halt drilling on public lands. While administration officials acknowledged the importance of these issues, they were not sufficient to halt the project. Rejecting the project could have resulted in ConocoPhillips filing a lawsuit and potentially receiving billions of dollars at the expense of taxpayers. Legal experts have suggested that even if the project were rejected, the oil company could still proceed with its development.

On March 28, a Gulf of Mexico oil and gas lease sale, which is one of the biggest in U.S. history, is set to take place. The leasing area for Lease Sale 259 contains petroleum reserves that have the potential to produce over 1 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This represents another alarming carbon bomb that is slowly proceeding through the federal approval process.

The resolution of the climate crisis cannot rely solely on clean energy technology, as keeping oil and gas reserves unexploited should also be considered. In terms of fossil fuel extraction on public lands, the United States is still heading in the wrong direction.

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