fb-pixel Skip to main content

The Willow Project: What to know about the massive Alaska oil-drilling venture Biden approved this week

This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope. The Biden administration's approval of the massive oil development in northern Alaska on Monday, March 13, 2023, commits the U.S. to yet another decadeslong crude project even as scientists urgently warn that only a halt to more fossil fuel emissions can stem climate change. ConocoPhillips' Willow project was approved Monday and would result in at least 263 million tons of planet-warming gases over 30 years.Uncredited/Associated Press

This week, President Biden approved a massive oil drilling project in Alaska, despite warnings from leading climate scientists that countries must halt fossil fuel expansion to secure a livable future.

The decision marks the culmination of years of debate over the future of drilling in the Arctic. Environmentalists and some Indigenous groups have made fighting the project a top priority and in recent weeks, young activists have launched a #StopWillow TikTok campaign to apply further pressure.

Advocates are already rolling out lawsuits to stop the drilling scheme. Meanwhile, ConocoPhilips, the oil company behind the project, is wasting no time on development.


Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Willow Project?

The Willow Project is a drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve, an area of land in Alaska that is owned by the federal government. The project was first greenlit by the Trump administration in 2020.

ConocoPhillips Alaska originally proposed five drilling sites as part of the project. Under Biden, officials shrunk the project to three drill sites; the Interior Department, which oversees the land management agency, said that reduced the project’s scope by 40 percent.

But the still-massive, 30-year oil drilling project has the potential to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day, ConocoPhillips says.

How would the Willow Project affect the environment?

Over its lifetime, the Willow Project would release over 260 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to federal estimates — the equivalent of putting two million additional cars on the road, or operating 66 new coal-fired power plants, for 30 years.

The United Nations’ top climate science body has said that countries must zero out greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century to have a hope of avoiding catastrophic warming.

The extraction and burning of fossil fuels from public lands accounts for about one quarter of all US greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2018 study by the US Geological Survey. Willow is the largest currently proposed oil project for public lands, and is the biggest oil field in Alaska in decades.


Residents of Nuiqsut, a village just 35 miles away from the newly approved drilling site, also say the project will threaten their way of life and have spoken out against it for years. Rapidly melting ice and thawing permafrost in the Arctic amid climate change is already reportedly limiting Alaska residents’ ability to travel, find food, and pursue cultural practices.

How will the project drill for oil when the ice is melting?

The Arctic is heating up nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet, and Alaska is expected to continue to warm by an average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the new venture’s 30-year life, research shows.

All that warming threatens to thaw the frozen tundra, making it hard to drill and threatening the stability of ice roads and bridges.

ConocoPhillips’ solution: using chillers to keep the tundra frozen beneath its roads and oil drilling infrastructure, according to a 2020 federal environmental review of the project.

Why did the Biden administration approve the project?

In a statement Monday, the Interior Department did not fully explain its approval of the project but made note of ConocoPhillips holding lease rights for the region, which the company has held since the late 1990s. The agency highlighted its decision to reject approvals for two of the five proposed drilling sites and to pursue other conservation measures for the region that it announced late Sunday.


“The actions will create an additional buffer from exploration and development activities near the calving grounds and migratory routes for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, an important subsistence resource for nearby Alaska Native communities,” the department said. “They significantly scale back the Willow Project within the constraints of valid existing rights under decades-old leases issued by prior Administrations.”

The high-stakes project has been challenging for White House officials, prompting weeks of meetings with advocates on both sides of the issue. Biden faced intense pressure from certain unions and some Indigenous groups in Alaska who argued the development would provide an economic lifeline to the region.

ConocoPhillips says the project would create 2,500 jobs during construction and 300 long-term jobs.

The administration reportedly determined that the Willow Project likely would have prevailed in a legal challenge if officials rejected it.

What does this mean for Biden’s climate promises?

On the presidential campaign trail, Biden said he would end new oil and gas permitting and leasing on public lands and waters — a pledge he’s since walked back.

Approving the Willow Project “flies in the face of that promise,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of the youth-led climate organization Sunrise Movement, said in a Monday statement.

“Instead of sticking to his own goals and listening to the millions of young people who carried the party for the last three cycles, President Biden is letting the fossil fuel industry have their way,” she said.

Biden plans to cut US emissions by 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Approving the Willow Project will make that target harder to meet, environmental advocates say.


Over the past year, Biden has also implored oil companies to boost output to tame prices and address market disruptions spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

When is The Willow Project starting?

Within hours of the administration announcing its green light Monday, ConocoPhilips started building ice roads inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to enable the movement of heavy equipment, according to a person familiar with the matter. ConocoPhillips expects to reach the site of a planned gravel mine and begin operations there as soon as Sunday, the person told Bloomberg.

How are environmentalists fighting the project now?

Environmentalists and Indigenous groups are already taking their fight against the development to federal court.

In separate lawsuits, the groups are challenging the federal government’s authorization of the Willow development, saying regulators failed to consider smaller, greener options that would better protect the region’s climate and wildlife, including caribou which Alaska Native communities depend on for subsistence, and polar bears. The filings represent the opening volley in what’s expected to be a protracted legal battle against one of the largest oil-and-gas projects ever permitted on US federal land.

“Permitting Willow to go forward is green-lighting a carbon bomb” that “would set back the climate fight and embolden an industry hell-bent on destroying the planet,” Christy Goldfuss, chief policy impact officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a news release.

With construction of the $8 billion project already underway, opponents hope to replicate the legal success they had in 2021, when federal judges issued an emergency order blocking ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. from opening a gravel mine at the site and later tossed out the Trump administration’s authorization altogether.


Opponents could ask the court for an emergency order halting work while the cases proceed.

Material from Bloomberg and the Washington Post wire services was used in this report.

Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.