The Willow Project, Climate Change, and the Paris Agreement

Heather Qin ‘24

On March 13, President Biden approved the controversial Willow Project. It opens Alaska’s North Slope to oil drilling, projected to funnel 180,000 barrels of oil per day into the Trans Alaska Pipeline. The project garnered support from oil companies advocating for greater American energy security and independence, but drew criticism from environmentalists who feared adverse effects on indigenous populations and surrounding ecosystems [1]

Activists claim that Biden’s approval betrays his campaign promises to end oil drilling on federal lands. Instead, this project is forecasted to produce over 239 million metric tons of greenhouse gases over three decades [1]. Although the administration issued protections for millions of acres of “ecologically sensitive” lands, including parts of the Beaufort sea, activists denounced the regulations as backhanded and performative. Already, two lawsuits have been filed: one by an environmentalist group and another by Alaskan Natives [5].

The United Nations also weighed in on the approval, as spokesperson Stephane Dujarric commented that the project is not “[moving] us in the right direction” [2]. On the other hand, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland defended the project, claiming that she is “still confident that we are on the right path” to the administration’s climate goals. Haaland, who formerly advocated against the project, admit that the administration has “limited decision space,” but the fact that the number of oil drilling sites was negotiated from five to three is an important step. Biden echoed her message, saying that “it’s not like you can cut everything off immediately,” highlighting that the Russian invasion in Ukraine has forced a reliance on fossil fuels [1].

CoconoPhilips, the company that proposed the project, argues that it would generate thousands of jobs and up to $17 billion in revenue for communities on a local, state, and national level [3]. In essence, the investment would serve as an economic lifeline for marginalized, indigenous communities, providing them with more resources to invest in local infrastructure and education. The group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat even stated that the project garnered majority consensus, but other Alaskan natives fear that the project will disrupt subsistence lifestyles and animal migration [4].

What does this mean for Climate Change and the Paris Agreement?

 In 2019, UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés warned that only eleven years remain to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change [6]. In 2020, artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd unveiled the Climate Clock in New York, a large clock similar to a Doomsday clock that records the amount of time humanity has to act before the critical effects of climate change become irreversible [7]. While Garcés warns that our generation may be the last to prevent “prevent irreparable damage to our planet,” many youth feel that the Willow Project is another step that intensifies the climate burden they will inherit [6]. 

In 2015, the Paris Agreement was established at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, seeking to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees celsius within the current century and preferably 1.5 degrees celsius. Countries who signed the treaty were required to submit action plans that would be evaluated for efficacy every five years [8]. However, just five years after the Agreement opened for signature, a study conducted on thirty-six countries by the policy-analyst Climate Action Tracker found that none of the world’s leading economies, or even a single G20 country, was on track to achieve Paris Agreement goals despite generating eighty percent of global emissions. In particular, plans submitted by countries such as Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were deemed “critically insufficient,” while the plans of Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Singapore, Switzerland, among others were deemed “highly insufficient.” 

Today, as the war in Ukraine continues to generate uncertainty regarding energy security, experts argue that change, while not the top priority but a necessary one, can only come gradually. Yet, as the Climate Clock continues to tick, many question if new policies such as the Willow Project are sustainable. Instead, shouldn’t society experiment with clean, independent energy? How do we define ‘gradual’ on a scale that ranges from a sweeping ‘Green New Deal’ to policy that lags behind that of other developed nations?