On March 13, President Joe Biden’s administration approved the current largest proposed oil project on federal lands, the Willow Project. The decades-long oil drilling venture, located in the federally designated National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day, create almost 3,000 jobs, and generate billions of dollars for federal, state, and local governments, according to ConocoPhillips, the company in charge of the project.
Its approval resulted in a great deal of backlash, mostly by environmental groups. The Associated Press (AP) reported that these groups believe the project does not align with Biden’s goals and campaign promises to cut carbon emissions and move to clean energy.
“Just this week, the UN released the latest in a series of devastating climate reports. We are simply not doing enough to avoid catastrophe,” said Dr. Steven Michels, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, and chair of political science and global affairs. “The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic was the best thing to happen to the planet in decades, but now things have returned to a terrible normal. We are on pace to hit a three-degree increase by 2300.”
Some Alaskan natives are also opposed to the project, especially for the future of wildlife and communities in the area. Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of Nuiqsut, the city closest to the site, is among those who fought the project with these concerns at the forefront of her mind, according to the AP.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, was under pressure from environmental and Indigenous groups to use her position to block the project’s approval, but was part of the ultimate decision. She released a Twitter video on Monday, March 13, responding to the announcement of the approval, and other environmental concerns of the American people.
“These are existing leases issued by previous administrations as far back as the 90s. As a result, we have limited decision space, but we focused on how to reduce the project’s footprint and minimize its impacts to people and to wildlife,” Haaland said in the video. “What was approved reflects a substantially smaller project than ConocoPhillips originally proposed, a 40% reduction. They’re also relinquishing nearly 70,000 acres of their leases, land that will no longer be developed.”
The ultimate approval, which Haaland referred to as difficult and complex, was partially motivated by the pursuit of energy independence in America, according to Dr. Gary Rose, chair and professor of political science and global affairs.
“I can understand the resistance among climate activists, but American energy independence, which we were on the verge of achieving before Biden took office, is the far more important issue,” Rose said. “At least with the Willow Program he is demonstrating why oil is necessary to our country’s survival. But there needs to be even more drilling in my view.”
Rose is among those who understands the Biden administration’s ultimate decision on this project.
“The climate activists will, of course, continue to raise an alarm about global warming and environmental protection, but overall the American people will support the President. Politically, it is a smart move,” Rose said. “Like almost every decision these days, there will be divisions and disagreement between and within the two parties. Climate activists don’t win elections and Biden knows that.”
Senior political science major Ciara Monteverdi can also see both sides of the argument surrounding this issue, despite being worried about its impacts on the climate and surrounding wildlife.
“I feel as though the public has every right to act on both sides of this project. I can understand how the public will think about this as a negative impact due to the environmental effects that will take place. However, there are economical benefits which makes the situation even harder,” Monteverdi said.
Junior Ashley Czermak, a political science major on the pre-law track, was among those discouraged by the approval of the project.
“Putting business and profit above the environment has always been something that doesn’t sit right with me. We get one planet, one environment. To prioritize drilling for oil, for profit over the land itself that is already suffering so much at the hands of humans and climate change, it’s really disheartening to see that the Biden Administration was willing to sign this into law,” Czermak said.
The #StopWillow campaign has been trending on social media, especially among Gen Z. Social media activists have been posting under the hashtag, both expressing their feelings on the project and promoting its petitions. Czermak also noted that many of this project’s opposers are of younger generations.
“We are the ones who are most impacted by these decisions, the ones that hurt the environment. Since we were kids, we’ve heard about climate change and how many years we have left before there’s irreversible change,” said Czermak.
In response to backlash from Gen Z about the speed of achieving his climate goals, Biden told the AP that his administration is moving faster than any others in the past. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said the energy situation “got really complicated” and recognized that America is going to need fossil fuel.
While ConocoPhillips is ready to start the project, the AP reported that there are lawsuits to stop the project pending in federal court in Alaska, which could delay this.
“The law might not be clear—that is, the law might need to be changed—but activists are right on the merits. This is another step in the wrong direction and cannot be allowed to happen without a fight,” Michels said. “I don’t like to make predictions, especially about the future, but this will likely happen. There’s too little will to control ourselves. It’s a pretty bad situation your generation is inheriting, so I hope you do better than we did.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.