Alaska’s Willow arctic drilling project is a climate turning-point. Biden must say no | Kim Heacox
President Biden faces a legacy-making – or legacy-breaking – decision in arctic Alaska with the $8bn Willow project, the largest oil and gas project currently proposed on US public lands.
If Biden remembers his visionary pledge – forged in the hard truth of human-caused climate change – that the US will expand into clean energy and approve no new oil drilling on federal lands, then his decision should be straightforward.
He will say no.
The world we live in today is not the same as the world of 1968 when oil was first discovered in arctic Alaska, in Prudhoe Bay. Back then, there were about 200 days a year that heavy vehicles could drive on so-called “ice roads.”
Now, it’s down to about 130. The eight warmest years on record have been the last eight. Oceans across the world are warming and rising and turning acidic. Villages are washing into the sea. Salmon are declining. Extinction rates are estimated at 100 times higher than historic levels. The arctic is heating at twice the rate as the rest of the world. And permafrost in many places is no longer permanent.
The single dirt road that crosses Denali National Park, Alaska’s Yellowstone, is closed at the midway point due to a rock glacier, loosened by warming temperatures, that has slumped down-slope and taken the road with it. To span the glacier will require a $100m bridge, paid for by US taxpayers. That’s money spent because of climate change – and just for one road.
Amid it all sits the oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips, indulged by the Alaska congressional delegation and the State of Alaska, wanting more while already riding a wave of record oil profits, and with many options to drill in the state’s existing oil patch. In February alone, the company applied to drill 45 new wells in Kuparuk.
When asked recently about Willow, the US Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, declined to be specific, but said that “public lands belong to every single American, not just one industry.”
If approved in full (not scaled down), Willow would mean the construction of at least 219 wells, 35 miles of roads, and hundreds of miles of pipelines, plus airstrips and a new central oil processing facility, all tied into Prudhoe Bay and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. But with construction comes destruction of yet another wild and beautiful place: silent and white in winter, poetic with rivers, lakes, ponds, caribou, grizzly bears and migratory birds in summer, an Indigenous cultural home and hunting ground for thousands of years.
The Interior Department estimates that Willow would release roughly 284m metric tons of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) over its 30-year lifetime – the equivalent of the annual emissions of about 75 coal-fired power plants.
“This carbon bomb,” the climate activists Zach Brown and Bill McKibben wrote last year in the Los Angeles Times, “would mock [Biden’s] campaign commitments to ease off on new oil leases – and in fact would represent a continuation of Trump-era efforts to drill big in the far north tundra.” The environmental group Evergreen Action says Willow would emit more climate pollution per year than more than 99.7% of all single-point sources in the country.
Some local Inupiat people want Willow, and say it will be compatible with their subsistence lifestyles; others oppose it, some fiercely. “Oil and gas development should not happen at the expense of our health and our survival,” Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut, has said. Nuiqsut is the Inupiat village closest to the proposed Willow site, 60 miles from Prudhoe Bay, where black carbon from fossil fuel production – and reported rates of respiratory illnesses – have increased. “Our communities are not sacrifice zones.”
In recent days, TikTok videos in opposition to Willow have reached millions of young viewers. Siqiniq Maupin, the executive director of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, says those videos show that people around the world care, especially young people. It’s their future. “They understand that what happens in the arctic doesn’t stay in the arctic.”
Last year, Mary Peltola, Alaska’s lone representative in the US House of Representatives, visited my little town while campaigning. When she told the audience she “believed” in climate change, I suggested she phrase it differently. Climate change is not a religion or matter of belief. It’s science. You either read and accept the peer-reviewed consensus, or you do not. She thanked me, and added that she didn’t think it was a crisis.
But climate change is a crisis. More than 1,000 scientists from 80-plus countries who form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say so. Based on the IPCC report, the United Nations calls our current state of global affairs a “code red for humanity.”
Amid all the clutter and noise, Biden must focus on the objective truth of climate change. Willow is a proposed 30-year lease. Think back to 30 years ago. How often was climate change discussed then? Hardly at all. Now go forward 30 years, when climate change, unless taken seriously now, will be the problem that aggravates all other problems, and threatens civilization as we know it.
As for ConocoPhillips and the State of Alaska, both are awash in money. They’ll be fine. Last fall nearly every Alaskan got a handsome check from the Alaska Permanent Fund, an oil account worth more than $70bn. It’s been this way every year for decades. At first it felt like a gift, then an entitlement. Now it feels like a bribe.
What’s at stake with Willow is a critical turning point in the US commitment to addressing climate change. If Biden does the right thing, he will send a signal around the world and inspire other leaders to stand up to big oil and say no – not here, not now, not ever. No compromise, no scaling down.
This oil – all of it on federal land – should stay in the ground as humankind embraces a green energy revolution that takes us into a healthy future.
Kim Heacox is the author of many books, including The Only Kayak, a memoir, and Jimmy Bluefeather, a novel, both winners of the National Outdoor Book Award. His newest novel, On Heaven’s Hill, will be released this month. He lives in Alaska.