Biden administration could not avoid Willow project approval

Katie Sigal

President Joe Biden approved the Willow project, a drilling project set to extract 600 million barrels of oil from Alaska’s North Slope, on March 13 despite massive amounts of pushback from climate activists and members of his own party. Climate concerns of this project are valid as a project like this could expose the world to 227 million tons of carbon emissions, however, Biden could only do a minimal amount to prevent it and despite his best efforts, could not stop it.

Administration officials report that the Biden administration was limited by a law that protects ConocoPhillips, the company spearheading Willow. This law gives companies like ConocoPhillips the right to develop on the land they are leasing. If Biden were to reject the Willow project, ConocoPhillips could have sued. This would likely result in ConocoPhillips getting paid billions of taxpayer dollars and being able to develop the project anyway. Additionally, the courts and Congress have forced Biden to sign off on oil and gas leases in the past, with court mandates or congressional mandates. This project would have gotten approved one way or another.

Additionally, nearly all Alaskan lawmakers have lobbied persistently for the Willow project with the claims that the project will create jobs and revenue for the government. This is an important point due to the fact that Alaska does not get as much revenue from tourism as other states, so the Willow project will help Alaska to grow economically. It is also important to note that Alaskan lawmakers truly want what’s best for their constituents and state and would not lobby for something they believed would be more of a detriment than a success. 

Support for the Willow project has also come from labor unions, building trades and several Indigenous groups in Alaska, including Democrat Mary Peltola, the state’s first Alaskan Native elected to Congress. Indigenous groups in Alaska will benefit from the oil drilled by the Willow project and the taxes generated.

Many are criticizing Biden for breaking a critical campaign promise he made —  “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.” Breaking campaign promises, however, is done quite often in Washington, D.C., especially with presidents. Former President Donald Trump made numerous broken promises during his time in office, ranging from vaccines, to the wall on the Mexico-United States border. While it is good to hold politicians accountable when they break promises, it is almost inevitable that they will at some point, and it is inane to think that they will act on everything they say they will.

To combat the environmental damage, the Biden administration has tried to reduce the scope of the project by demanding some concessions from ConocoPhillips. Biden also has intended to designate 2.8 million acres of land near the project as restricted for future gas and oil leasing. Additionally, right before the Willow project was approved, he blocked another oil drilling project in Alaska. While Biden did approve the project, he also understands the extreme nature of oil drilling projects and truly was not able to get out of the Willow project.

The Willow project will do some damage to the environment and Biden did break a campaign promise, but the approval of Willow was unavoidable and the Biden administration made the right decision to not fight it.