Climate justice advocates are condemning President Joe Biden for approving a massive oil drilling proposal in northern Alaska known as Willow, which will now be one of the largest new drilling projects in the U.S.
The $8 billion project, proposed by ConocoPhillips, will be located in Alaska's North Slope, a majority-Native American area. The drilling will take place over the next few decades on pristine land in the petroleum reserve across three drilling pads, and will involve the building of hundreds of wells and hundreds of miles of pipelines. The company would, ironically, be required to refreeze permafrost that's been melting due to global warming caused by companies like ConocoPhillips and others in the fossil fuel industry.
Willow is expected to worsen the climate crisis and even further entrench the fossil fuel industry's grip over the energy market, and has been condemned by Al Gore as "recklessly irresponsible." It would release a "carbon bomb" of nearly 260 million metric tons of carbon emissions, amounting to double the amount of carbon dioxide saved from current Biden administration climate projects, or the annual output of nearly a third of all U.S. coal power plants.
The approval of the project goes directly against Biden's campaign trail promise of "no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period."
Earthjustice has pledged to challenge the approval in court, and says that the administration had the authority to stop the project or at least substantially reduce its carbon output but chose not to do either.
"We are too late in the climate crisis to approve massive oil and gas projects that directly undermine the new clean economy that the Biden Administration committed to advancing," Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said in a statement. "We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals."
On top of the climate impacts of the project, local Indigenous communities have warned that the project would endanger their health. The plans for Willow put it just 36 miles away from Nuiqsut, a community made up of largely Native Americans who worry that, between Willow and the other oil and gas infrastructure surrounding the community, cancer caused by air and other pollution is not just a possibility, but an inevitability, as Atmos Magazine reported.
Many prominent climate and justice organizations decried Biden's decision.
"President Biden claims to prioritize climate justice, yet today's decision reveals that he is quick to cater to pressure from Big Oil over the needs of the people," said 350.org North America director Jeff Ordower. "Biden absolutely has the power to reject ALL new fossil fuel projects, declare a climate emergency, and truly fight for both our people and our planet. Frontline communities and scientists have been clear that that is the only way forward."
Food & Water Watch called the approval "another massive climate disappointment from Biden."
"There is simply no justification for President Biden's decision to approve a massive new oil drilling scheme that will lead to decades of air and climate pollution," said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. "This decision is part of a disturbing and disappointing trend with this White House. President Biden refuses to take the necessary actions to rein in climate catastrophe, while issuing rhetoric that professes concern for the existential threat that we all face."
The decision was also criticized by lawmakers like Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who said that the "disastrous decision" is "an environmental injustice."
The administration is also expected to announce new restrictions on Arctic Ocean offshore oil leasing and on drilling elsewhere in the North Slope, but advocates say that that wouldn't justify approving the Willow project.
"It's insulting that Biden thinks this will change our minds about the Willow project," Kristen Monsell, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The New York Times. "Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn't make sense, and it won't help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project."
Frustration has only mounted for climate advocates throughout Biden's presidency. Though Biden pledged to end new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, his administration has been approving permits at a breakneck pace; federal data has shown that, in Biden's first two years, he has approved even more permits for oil and gas drilling than Donald Trump did in the same amount of time.