Everything You Need to Know About the Controversial Willow Project

A massive new oilfield could be greenlit by the Biden administration as early as this week.

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A protest against Willow in December in front of the White House.
A protest against Willow in December in front of the White House.
Photo: Paul Morigi (Getty Images)

If you’ve opened TikTok recently, you may have seen a collection of videos under the hashtag #StopWillow, some of which have racked up hundreds of thousands of views, imploring people to take action against a controversial new oil project. (“There won’t [be] a healthy planet for your kids if Biden goes through with the willow project,” reads the caption on one, which has more than 678,000 likes.) This viral hashtag isn’t confined to TikTok: Nearly 3 million people have signed a Change.org petition to stop the Willow Project, which could become the single largest oil project given a green light by the Biden administration.

Here’s everything you need to know about the controversial Willow Project, which could be approved as early as this week.

What is the Willow Project?

The Willow Project is the name for a proposed new oilfield in Alaska’s North Slope near the Arctic Sea. According to owner ConocoPhillips, the $6 billion Willow Project would create 2,500 jobs in the area and generate up to $17 billion in revenue for the state and federal governments as well as local communities. The region is suspected to contain a whopping 600 million barrels of oil; ConocoPhillips says that at peak performance, the Willow project is expected to churn out 180,000 barrels of oil per day—that’s around 1.6% of the U.S.’s current oil production from one site alone.


But all this oil could be a real climate bomb. Over the course of the 30-year projected lifespan of the project, Willow could create 278 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions—the equivalent of driving 2 million cars around over the course of three decades. Given how quickly the world needs to move off oil and gas—and the mandates that we halt all new fossil fuel exploration as soon as possible—Willow could be a big step in the wrong direction.

That’s a big project—why am I just hearing about this now?

It’s been a long journey to get to this point. The project, which went through its initial round of permits starting in 2018, was initially greenlit by Trump’s Bureau of Land Management in late 2020. However, a federal judge reversed that approval in 2021, saying that the Trump administration did not take possible greenhouse gas emissions, as well as protections for an ecologically sensitive region in the planned project area, into account.

At the beginning of last month, the Bureau of Land Management, now under the Biden administration, published a new environmental review on the project, which took pains to address the items the judge had taken issue with in the 2021 ruling. The review had some changes—it recommended drilling at just three sites instead of five and reducing the amount of roads and other infrastructure to be built—and expressed “substantial concerns” about the project. But the review effectively opened the door for the Interior Department to give the final go-ahead to the Willow Project.

That decision, as well as a final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, could come as early as this month. The New York Times reported that, as of early February, the Biden administration seemed poised to give the Willow project a green light.


In recent weeks, the administration has been the subject of intense lobbying from all sides. The entire Alaskan Congressional delegation met with Biden for more than an hour last week to urge approval for the project, while protests against Willow have increased outside the White House. A group of lawmakers sent a letter to the president Friday urging him to look into alternatives for the Willow Project.

“Approving a major new oil and gas development project would be inconsistent with your Administration’s historic achievements on climate and environmental justice,” the letter reads.


Isn’t Alaskan drilling off the table?

Not really. In June 2021, the Interior Department suspended a whole host of leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) that had been greenlit by the Trump administration. However, the Willow Project sits outside the ANWR on a stretch of public land known as the National Petroleum Reserve, making it theoretically open for business.

There’s a lot of tension in Alaska around the Willow Project and the state’s future with regards to oil and gas in general. Fossil fuels have long been a crucial moneymaker in Alaska, with oil funding around 80% of its government. In recent years, the oil and gas industry has not shown a lot of interest in lease sales in Alaska, giving the Willow Project a new importance.


“If you look at a forecast without Willow, Alaska’s oil production is slated to continue to decline,” Brett Watson, an economist at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, told CQ Roll Call. “With Willow, Alaska’s oil production could be higher than it is today. Our fate is really tied to this one industry, and the up and down cycles of that industry create wild swings in our state’s economy.”

But the development of oil and gas in Alaska has also been devastating for local ecosystems, due to spills like the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and the environmental impacts of drilling, as well as the warming associated with global fossil fuel use that has sent the Arctic region into a tailspin. Last week, the City of Nuiqsut, which is close to the planned Willow Project, and Native community leaders sent a letter to the Interior Department criticizing the new BLM plan and the impact that Willow would have on their lives and the local environment.


“The environmental racism and injustice of oil development on the North Slope must stop,” the letter reads. “Oil development paid for our utilities, our schools, and so many other advancements we have benefitted from. But providing these services is the responsibility of our governments, not private corporations. And we have a right to these services whether we agree to hosting an industrial wasteland in our backyard or not.”

Isn’t the Biden Administration committed to lowering emissions?

Yes, but there are a lot of caveats to that commitment. Biden pledged on the campaign trail to halt all fossil fuel production on public lands, and he entered office with climate as a centerpiece of his administration. But Biden has continued to encourage fossil fuel development in the U.S., and the global energy crisis has only renewed the administration’s efforts. In a reversal of a previous cancelation, the administration held a controversial lease sale in Alaska’s Cook Inlet in December, where only one company was a bidder for a sliver of the 1 million acres up for sale.


The administration has suggested in recent days that it may approve Willow and simultaneously ban Arctic drilling off the coast of the North Slope as a compromise, but some environmental groups have said that isn’t enough to offset the carbon bomb that Willow represents.

“Rejecting a project like Willow should be a no-brainer for a climate leader like Biden,” Evergreen Action chief of staff Lena Moffitt told the Washington Post. “And if he doesn’t, it’ll be a stain on his legacy,”