It’s up to Biden to stop a climate and environmental disaster in Alaska
No president has accomplished as much in the fight to stop the climate crisis as Joe Biden. But the president is facing one of the most consequential choices of his administration: Keep the country on track to achieve his administration’s ambitious climate goals, or endorse the largest oil and gas project on federal lands ever.
It may have an innocuous name — Willow — but that gentle-sounding title is a poor effort to dress up ConocoPhillips’ massive oil and gas drilling proposal on Alaska’s North Slope. If President Biden allows them to move forward, it could have long-term consequences for the lands, wildlife and communities not just of Alaska, but worldwide.
That’s because ConocoPhillips’ proposed drilling operation would be one of the single largest sources of carbon pollution in the world. Over its lifespan, Willow could emit nearly 300 million metric tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to operating 76 coal-fired power plants — one-third of all the coal plants currently in the U.S. Some are calling it a “carbon bomb,” and we’re dangerously close to it going off. If it does, the collateral damage would be staggering.
In their promotional material touting the project, ConocoPhillips talks about the landscape of the North Slope in cold language and statistics: units of land, numbers of fields and lists of drilling prospects. In reality, it is a thriving arctic landscape providing critical habitat to polar bears and caribou and offering a haven for dozens of migratory bird species. Many Alaska Native communities continue to live a subsistence lifestyle, made possible due to the region’s clean air, lands and waters.
North of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t rise during winter months, and it doesn’t set in the dead of summer. This year, as the sun starts to rise for the first time in 2023, this massive industrial project is poised for approval. If allowed to move forward, it would create catastrophic ecosystem disruption by importing heavy machinery, constructing well pads and establishing pipeline infrastructure within 30 miles of the largest body of freshwater in Arctic Alaska — and that’s before producing a single drop of oil.
If those pumps ever turn on, the consequences get significantly worse for all those who call this special place home. The construction and operation of these oil wells could exacerbate ongoing public health issues. Communities like Nuiqsut are already dealing with the consequences of oil development in the region, like deteriorating air quality and a spike in respiratory disorders. Extraction would alter migratory paths for many species and threaten others. This disruption would also have harmful effects on Alaska Native communities, many of whom rely on these very species and this landscape for subsistence.
Those effects are when everything goes according to plan. When they don’t, the community will be grappling with an even greater environmental disaster. Last year, a well in another of ConocoPhillips’s Alaskan oil operations blew out, spewing 7.2 million cubic feet of methane into the air. It was so bad that the company evacuated 300 of its employees from the site, some as far as 34 miles away. The residents of Nuiqsut, barely eight miles away, were left to watch.
For the climate, it would be nothing short of catastrophic. The estimated carbon pollution emitted by Willow would undue any climate progress we’ve achieved so far, transforming what should be a centerpiece of the administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative to protect public lands and waters into a major driver of climate change. It would force us into another 30 years of fossil fuels at this critical moment when we should be accelerating our transition to clean energy. Simply put, it makes it impossible to meet President Biden’s ambitious 2030 climate goals. That’s why the president must stop Willow cold in its tracks.
Willow is a climate disaster waiting to happen. It is irreconcilable with the climate goals we need to meet to take on climate change, and allowing it would do irreversible damage to this treasured landscape. President Biden can be a climate hero and prioritize climate action, environmental justice, and a transition to a clean energy future, or he can lock us into the economy and energy of the past. We need him to make the right choice. We need him to say no to Conoco and stop Willow.
Ben Jealous is the executive director of the Sierra Club, America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. Previously, Ben led the NAACP from 2008 to 2013 as its youngest-ever president and CEO and was president of People for the American Way from 2020 to 2022.
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