The Willow Project is an act of terror against the climate, and the Biden administration just approved it. Defying science and the government’s many assurances that it cares about the climate, this massive oil drilling project in the wilderness of northern Alaska agrees that we need to make a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Joe Biden seems to think that if we do some good things for the climate, we can also do some very bad things, and somehow it will all even out.
Related: The Willow Arctic drilling project in Alaska is a climate tipping point. Biden has to say no | Kim Heacox
To make this magical thinking more obvious and to try to smooth out broad resistance, the US federal government also just spat out some safeguards against drilling in the Arctic Ocean and elsewhere in the National Petroleum Reserve (and only approved three of the five drilling sites). invasion of this wilderness by ConocoPhillips). Of course, that’s like saying, “We’re going to kill your mother, but we’re sending guards to protect your grandmother.” It doesn’t make your mother any less dead. With climate, do some physics and math before you commit deal with morality. All carbon and methane emissions matter, and they need to decrease quickly this decade. As Bill McKibben likes to say, you can’t negotiate with physics.
You can try to negotiate with the public, but the motivation behind that decision is hard to figure out. The deal was inherited from the Trump administration and to reject it would have been a break with convention, but convention condemns us and we need break.
Biden was elected in no small part by the turnout of young voters who supported his strong climate platform. As a candidate, he promised: “And by the way, no more drilling on federal land, period. Period, period, period.” Six million letters and 2.3 million comments opposing the project were sent to the White House, many from young people inspired by social media. The American public, apart from the Republican minority, is now deeply preoccupied with the reality of the climate crisis and the urgency to do something about it.
I call it an act of terrorism because this drilling project in Alaska is producing petroleum that will be burned releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where it will contribute to climate chaos that will affect the people of the South Pacific, the tropics, the circumpolar arctic, the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet (this month will be a shocking 50F warmer than normal). It not only produces petroleum; It produces huge amounts of it, resulting in an estimated 278 million tons of CO2 emissions.
That makes it a carbon bomb, like oil production in the Permian Basin of the southwestern United States and the tar sands of Alberta. As former Vice President Al Gore recently put it: “The proposed expansion of Alaskan oil and gas drilling is recklessly irresponsible … The pollution that would result will not only endanger Alaska Natives and other local communities, it is irreconcilable with the ambition we need to achieve a net zero future.”
Previously, The New York Times reported, “The government says the country needs to phase out fossil fuels, but backed a project that aims to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for 30 years.” In 30 years, it will be 2053, three Years after we should have achieved a completely fossil-free future.
There is actual negotiation in the government decision logs which state that “the permit holder shall compensate 50% of the projected net amount [greenhouse gas emissions] … in line with US commitments under the Paris Agreement. GHGs are intended to be offset by reforestation of land…” The claim that trees are our atmospheric janitorial service belies both how forests around the world are being devastated by the climate crisis – burgeoning pests, drought, fire, ecosystems dying Changing faster than trees can adapt — and planting trees doesn’t necessarily result in a healthy, long-lasting forest.
According to this document, each tree can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Except that small seedlings won’t do that and by the time the trees, if they survive, are fully grown it will be too late to help our current climate goals. I asked a friend with a talent for math to process the data; he concluded that “12.8 billion trees could sequester the carbon produced in one year; or 1/100th of that – 128 million trees – could sequester the carbon produced in 100 years.” This is not a solution to the emission of those 278 million tons of carbon dioxide in the next few years.
In a letter to Biden, Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, an Alaskan Indigenous organization, cautioned that this project would mean devastation: “Approving a project the size of Willow would be climate suicide. Coastal villages in Alaska are losing land to erosion at a breakneck rate, thawing permafrost is causing dramatic ecosystem changes and destroying oil and other infrastructure, and Alaska Natives are at risk of losing their jobs, homes and lives in one place where this is the case is warming four times faster than the rest of the world.”
We are already failing to stop the galloping climate change. Adding this carbon bomb makes it worse – both for the actual damage to the climate and for the signal the US is sending to the world. The Biden administration made a colossal mistake.