The Trouble With the Willow Project | Yet More Arctic Drilling
Alaska’s North Slope is one of the most fascinating ecosystems in the world. Vast expanses of treeless tundra and harsh coastline provide a home for a wide array of animals and indigenous communities. Sadly, this region is also full of oil. The North Slope is where the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) is located, which is a 23 million acre area of federal land that was set aside for oil drilling in 1923. In 1976, drilling in the NPR-A started, and now 1.8 million barrels of oil from the North Slope passes through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline every day. I have previously written blogs against expanding drilling on the North Slope (specifically in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), and now there is a new proposal to expand North Slope drilling.
The Willow project is a proposed expansion to oil drilling in the NPR-A. Oil giant ConocoPhillips is behind this project and continues to ignore the detrimental environmental and cultural impacts on the region. But what are the project's actual harms? Last month, the Department of the Interior released a draft environmental impact statement saying that the project would release around 284 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over its 30-year lifetime, if not much more. The Biden administration estimates that the project will produce 600 million barrels of crude oil, but ConocoPhillips has been privately telling investors that it could produce up to 3 billion barrels. Climate change is too far along for us to be expanding oil drilling, and this project would only push us closer to 2ºC of warming (and by the time these wells start producing oil, we will be even closer to the 2º threshold0. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared earlier this year that there can be no new fossil fuel developments if we want to stay below 1.5ºC of warming, and the International Energy Agency declared that there can be no further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure if we hope to meet the targets set by the Paris Climate Accords. The last thing we need right now is for another Texas-based oil company to further carve up the arctic and pull yet more oil out of the ground.
The Willow project also threatens Teshekpuk Lake, which is a vital ecosystem to the North Slope. It has been protected within the NPR-A under the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, but its ecological health is threatened by this project. The NPR-A is home to the breeding grounds of 30% of the world’s 100 million breeding shorebirds, and Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake in the arctic, is home to 40% of the birds that visit Alaska’s North Slope. The tundra these animals rely on is already changing due to climate change and is expected to dry up. If oil wells are drilled and huge pipelines are built, it will only diminish the hydrologic functionality of the tundra and the integrity of the permafrost. It will also add oil spills to the equation and spread invasive species. The caribou and foxes living around Teshekpuk Lake are also at risk. If oil companies increase drilling, there will have to be a lot more development. Foxes tend to follow development like roads and pipelines while hunting because they think the roads are natural trails that lead to food. Increased development could leave them away from food and starve them. Caribou, especially pregnant ones and ones with calves, tend to avoid development and stay in the untouched land. More development will destroy their habitat and give them no place to go. These caribou are also incredibly important to the indigenous cultures of the North Slope, and without them, native traditions will be harmed and food insecurity for native communities will worsen. Many more animals, including polar bears and lemmings, will be affected by this unless we can stop the drilling.
Sadly, the Biden administration seems on board with this. The Trump administration set all of this in motion, and Biden seems keen on supporting his predecessor on this issue and letting Alaskan Senator and oil addict Lisa Murkowski get her way. If we do not succeed in preserving these habitats, one of the world’s last natural, open places will be destroyed. The Department of the Interior is taking public comments on its Willow project environmental impact statement. To protect the ecology and indigenous communities of the North Slope and the planet as a whole, please leave a comment.
Comment here: https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/109410/570