Willow Project: Why the US approved it and what that means

Legal challenges from environmental groups are likely.
Ameya Paleja
Drilling for oil
Drilling for oil

grandriver/iStock  

With its recent approval of the ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project on Alaska's North Slope, the Biden administration appears to have backtracked on its election promise not to allow any more oil drilling on federal lands. This has drawn the ire of environmental groups. However, rejecting the proposal was also not so straightforward. Here's everything you need to know about what led to this controversial decision.

The Willow Project is an oil-drilling venture that has been in the works for decades. Located in the National Petroleum Reserves (NPR) on the North Slope of Alaska, the project is an initiative of ConocoPhillips, a Houston-based energy company that is the only venture that currently has exploration and drilling ventures in the region.

The area of the Willow Project holds up to 600 million barrels of oil, and the proposal was approved by the previous administration. In its 2020 approval, ConocoPhillips had secured rights to drill five oil pads which the current administration has now reduced to three but will still allow the company to extract 90 percent of the oil from the facility.

Supporters and opponents of the Willow project

The three members of the U.S. Congress from Alaska are all in favor of the project as it is expected to create jobs in the region, increase domestic energy production, and reduce reliance on imported oil. Some Alaska Native groups are also supportive of the project since it will contribute to revenues generated from the region, which will contribute toward education and healthcare.

Those opposed to the project are Alaska Natives that live closer to the planned project as they are concerned about the health and environmental impact of the drilling. Environmentalist groups from various parts of the U.S. are also against it since the project is estimated to release 9.2 million metric tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere – the equivalent of putting two million gas-powered cars on the roads.

Willow Project: Why the US approved it and what that means
Increased oil production means increased emissions

Why the U.S. government approved the project

The U.S. government was walking a tightrope as it took months to arrive at its decision. While there was a surge of online activism asking the administration not to approve the project, ConocoPhillips had valid and existing leases for the area under the project. Even if the government had refused the approval, the company would have approached the courts and secured its permissions anyway.

Moreover, the government is also looking to secure its energy position, which has radically changed after Russia's invasion of Ukraine and shows no signs of cooling off.

What the administration is hopeful of is that by reducing the number of drilling sites in the project and adding further areas in Alaska where it will limit or prevent drilling in the future, it will protect areas and habitats from extractive development.

On Sunday, the White House announced 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve and a 28 million acre chunk in North Slope where drilling limits will now apply.

Moreover, the approval of the project does not mean that oil production can immediately begin. ConocoPhillips can officially begin construction at the sites, which can only be carried out during the winter months. The current winter in Alaska is expected to end in April, following which construction will cease for a considerable period of time.

If environmental groups legally planning to challenge the decision manage to get an injunction, the construction might not even start this year. It will be years before the oil production from Willow Project can begin and hit the markets.

This report contains information that appeared on CNN and AP.

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