Article image

Alaska oil project may offset new Arctic protections

On Monday, March 13, 2023, President Joe Biden is expected to announce sweeping protections for over 16 million acres of federal lands and waters in Alaska that would put the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits to future oil and gas drilling. However, this announcement comes at the same time that the administration is preparing to approve one of the largest oil developments ever on federal land – ConocoPhillips multibillion-dollar drilling project “Willow.” 

The Arctic protections are set to extend to the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay – which are important habitats for a wide variety of wildlife, including grizzly and polar bears, caribou, and migratory birds – as well as over three million acres in the Arctic Ocean.

“It’s a place that is critically important for the wildlife,” said White House climate adviser John D. Podesta. “From the president’s perspective, conserving the natural resources, particularly in the special areas for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, are top-of-mind issues.” 

However, according to many environmental organizations, the move to protect these areas is insufficient to offset the damage the Willow project will likely cause by allowing the construction of hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, multiple airstrips, as well as a gravel mine and a processing facility. This massive industrial venture is estimated to produce between 576 and 614 million barrels of oil over the next three decades, releasing 9.2 million metric tons of CO2 per year (the equivalent to adding two million gas-powered cars to the roads). 

Moreover, the region around Nuiqsut, where the project will begin, is already one of the fastest-warming places on Earth and is located in the vicinity of Teshekpuk Lake, which is home to thousands of migrating caribou, 600,000 shorebirds, 78,000 molting geese, and various other species. Due to its setting, the Willow project will most likely have a market negative impact on this species, while contributing to further warming.

“These conservation decisions by the Biden administration are positive steps, but not nearly sufficient to blunt the impact of any version of the Willow oil and gas project,” said Karlin Itchoak, the Alaska senior regional director for the Wilderness Society.

“It’s lipstick on a pig,” added Jamal Raad, the co-founder and senior adviser of the climate group Evergreen Action. “This does not negate or discount the climate impacts of the Willow project in any way, shape or form.”

While the approval of the Willow project is seen as an important victory for Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation, as well as for a coalition of Alaska native tribes and groups who consider the drilling venture as an important new source of revenue and jobs for this region, whether its economic and social benefits can offset the damage to the environment that it will most likely cause remains a matter of heated debate.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day