Willow Project, explained: What to know about the controversial oil drilling venture in Alaska


The Biden administration is expected to decide soon whether to approve the controversial Willow project in Alaska.

ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope has been going through the administration’s approval process for months, galvanizing a sudden uprising of online activism against it, including more than one million letters written to the White House protesting the project, and a Change.org petition with over 2.9 million signatures.

Here’s what you need to know about Project Willow.

The Willow Project proposed by ConocoPhillips is a massive, decades-long oil drilling venture on Alaska’s North Slope in the federally owned National Petroleum Reserve.

The area where the project is planned contains up to 600 million barrels of oil. This oil would take years to reach the market since the project has not yet been built.

State lawmakers say the project will create jobs, boost domestic energy production and reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. The three lawmakers from the bipartisan Alaska Congressional delegation met with President Joe Biden and his senior advisers on March 3, urging the president and his administration to endorse the bill.

A coalition of Alaska Native groups on the North Slope also support the project, saying it could provide a much-needed new source of revenue for the region and fund services such as education and health care.

“Willow presents an opportunity to continue this investment in communities,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told CNN. “Without that money and that source of revenue, we’re dependent on the state and the federal government.”

Other Alaska Natives living closer to the planned project, including city officials and tribal members of the Nuiqsut Native Village, are deeply concerned about the health and environmental impacts of a major oil development.

In a recent personal letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and two other Nuiqsut town and tribal officials said the village would bear the brunt of the health and Willow’s environmental features. Other “villages derive financial benefits from oil and gas activity, but experience far less impact than Nuiqsut,” the letter says. “We are at ground zero for the industrialization of the Arctic.”

Additionally, a flurry of online activism against Willow emerged on TikTok last week – resulting in over a million letters sent to the Biden administration against the project and over 2.8 million signatures on a Change.org petition to stop Willow.

By the administration’s own estimates, the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year, the equivalent of adding 2 million gasoline-powered cars to the roads.

“This is a huge climate threat and inconsistent with this administration’s promises to tackle the climate crisis,” Jeremy Lieb, Alaska-based senior attorney with the environmental law group Earthjustice, told CNN. In addition to concerns about rapid Arctic warming, groups also fear the project will destroy habitat for native species and alter the migration patterns of animals, including caribou.

Willow advocates, including Alaska lawmakers, swear the project will produce fossil fuels in a cleaner way than getting them from other countries, including Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.

“Why don’t we access [oil] of a resource that we know has an unrivaled environmental record? said Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska at a recent press conference.


During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to end new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters — which he originally carried out under a first executive order.

However, the drilling pause was overturned by a federal judge in 2021, and since then the Biden administration has opened several areas for new drilling. Several of these new oil and gas drilling areas have been challenged in court by environmental groups.

If Project Willow is endorsed by the Biden administration in any form, it will almost certainly face a legal challenge.

Environmental legal group Earthjustice told CNN it was preparing legal action against the project. Lawyers have already begun to lay out their legal justification, saying the Biden administration’s authority to protect surface resources on Alaska’s public lands includes taking action to reduce carbon pollution that is warming the planet – to which Willow would eventually add.

A decision on the Willow project could come as early as this week.

The Biden administration could approve the scope of the project with three drilling rigs – which is what was recommended by the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska – or propose a scaled-down version of the project with two drilling rigs. He could also decide to reject the Willow project all together.


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