The Willow Arctic oil drilling project—the latest battle in a long fight over Alaska’s North Slope

Caribou in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska are important to native groups. However, local groups are divided over support for income-generating drilling. Photo credit: Bob Wick/Land Management Office, CC BY

For more than six decades, Alaska’s North Slope has been a hotbed of intense controversy over oil exploration and wilderness protection, with no end in sight. Willow Field, a 600 million barrel, $8 billion oil project recently approved by the Biden administration – to the outrage of environmental and climate activists – is the latest chapter in this long saga.

Historical background is needed to understand why President Joe Biden allowed the project despite promising “no more drilling on federal land, period” during his presidential campaign. A closer look at the way national and international fears are currently complicating any decision for or against future oil exploration on the North Slope.

More than just Willow

The Willow Project lies within a vast 23 million hectare area known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. This was one of four such reserves set aside in the early 1900s to ensure oil supplies for the US military. Although there was no production at NPR-A at this time, geological information and surface oil seeps indicated large resources along the north flank.

Proof came in 1968 with the discovery of the oversized Prudhoe Bay field, which began producing oil in 1977. However, exploration programs in the NPR-A have found only small oil deposits worthy of local exploitation.

Then, in the 2000s, new geological discoveries and advanced exploration technology led companies to lease portions of the reserve, and they were soon making major fossil fuel discoveries. Because NPR-A is federal land, government approval is required for any development. So far most have been approved. Willow is the newest.

Since the opening of Prudhoe Bay and construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s, opposition to North Slope drilling has been fierce from conservationists, environmental organizations, and some Indigenous communities, mostly in support of wilderness preservation. After the oil crisis in the 1970s, opponents were unable to stop development.

Over the next four decades, the controversy shifted east to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Republican presidents and congressional leaders repeatedly attempted to open the sanctuary for drilling, but were consistently stifled — until 2017. That year, the Trump administration opened it up for rent. Ironically, no companies were interested. Oil prices had fallen, risk was high and reputational costs high.

However, to the west of the Sanctuary, a number of new discoveries in NPR-A and adjacent territories have attracted attention as a major new oil field with multi-billion barrel potential. Oil prices had risen, and although they fell again in 2020, they were above $70 a barrel for most of 2020 – high enough to encourage significant new development.

ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project is located in the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Photo credit: USGS, Department of the Interior

resistance, with little success

Opposition to the new Willow project has been driven by concerns about the drilling’s impact on wildlife and the increasing use of fossil fuels on the climate. It is estimated that Willow’s Oil is capable of releasing 287 million tons of carbon dioxide when refined into fuels and consumed.

Opponents have been particularly focused on a proposed pipeline that will extend existing infrastructure further west and deeper into NPR-A and is likely to encourage further exploration drilling.

So far this resistance has had little success.

Twenty miles south of Willow is the Peregrine prospect which is estimated to contain around 1.6 billion barrels of oil. Its development was approved by the Biden administration in late 2022. To the east is the approximately 2 billion barrel Pikka-Horseshoe discovery area. It will probably also find approval. Additional NPR-A drilling was completed to the southwest (Harpoon Prospect), northeast (Cassin) and southeast (Stirrup).

legality issues

One reason the Biden administration approved the Willow project has to do with legality: ConocoPhillips holds the leases and has a statutory right to drill. Terminating his leases would entail a court case that, if lost, would set a precedent, cost the government millions of dollars in fees, and do nothing to stop oil drilling.

Instead, the government struck a deal with ConocoPhillips that reduced Willow’s total area to be developed by 60%, including the removal of a sensitive wildlife area called Teshekpuk Lake. The Biden administration also announced it would close 13 million acres of NPR-A and all federal waters of the Arctic Ocean to new leases.

However, that did little to stem anger over the project’s approval. Two groups have already sued against the permit.

Credit: The Conversation

Taking into account future risks

To better understand Biden’s endorsement of the Willow project, one must also look to the future.

Discoveries in northeastern NPR-A indicate that this will become an important new oil field for the US. While actual oil production there is not expected for several years, its timing will coincide with a projected plateau or decline in overall US production later this decade. because of what one CEO of a shale company called the end of shale oil’s aggressive growth.

Historically, falls in domestic supply have led to higher fuel prices and imports. High petrol and diesel prices, with their inflationary effects, can weaken the political party in power. While current prices and inflation haven’t hurt Biden and the Democrats too much, there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.

Geopolitical concerns, particularly Europe

The Biden administration is also currently under geopolitical pressure due to the Russian war against Ukraine.

US companies boosted exports of oil and natural gas last year in a bid to become a lifeline for Europe as the European Union seeks to weaken the Kremlin’s ability to fund its war against Ukraine with sanctions and bans on Russian fossil fuel imports . US imports have been able to replace much of the Russian supply that Europe once counted on.

The energy crisis in Europe has also meant that energy security has once again become a top concern for national leaders around the world. Undoubtedly, the crisis has highlighted that oil and gas remain vital to the global economy. The Biden administration’s position is that significant supply reductions — necessary to avoid damaging climate change — cannot be achieved through a ban alone. Shutting down new drilling globally would drive up fuel prices, weakening economies and the ability to deal with the climate problem.

The energy transition depends on changes in demand, not just supply. As an energy scientist, I believe that promoting the affordability of electric vehicles and the infrastructure to support them would do much more to reduce oil consumption than drilling bans. Although it may seem counterintuitive, by supporting European economic stability, US fossil fuel exports can also support the EU plan to accelerate the use of carbon-free energy in the years to come.


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