The Biden Administration approved the ConocoPhillips Willow Project on Monday, March 13, leaving many local environmentalists upset.
The project grants the organization of three drilling sites in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, or the NPR-A.
Despite the project being reduced from five drill sites to three, it is still expected to add nearly 280 million tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere over the three decades that it will take place, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Interior, or DOI.
Doug Bessette, an assistant professor in MSU's Department of Community Sustainability, said he was surprised and disappointed by Biden’s approval of the project.
“This is solely aimed at the 2024 election and to provide him with some argument he can make to show that he cares about energy prices, but it totally negates everything that he has said he’s been trying to do to mitigate emissions as rapidly as we need to," Bessette said.
Comparative cultures and politics sophomore Jesse Estrada-White is an organizer for Sunrise MSU, a student environmental organization that aims to end climate change. He called the project's approval "an act of environmental racism" and a "human rights and climate crisis issue."
“It’s an act of environmental racism and a continuation of colonialism and all of the harms and all of the negative impacts that go along with an act of environmental racism,” Estrada-White said. “It’s just continuing the violence that Native communities in Alaska have faced for centuries and it puts their entire environment at risk, not just the ecosystem but the place they live and the environment they rely on to provide for them.”
A release from the DOI said Biden plans to take action to designate 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean as "off limits" for future oil and gas leasing to ensure the protection of wildlife habitats.
Estrada-White doesn't think that this “makes up” for Biden's approval of the oil drilling.
“We can’t live in a world where we oil drill in one area and then preserve wetlands in another area because we’re still releasing the fossil fuel emissions from that oil drilling,” Estrada-White said. “Protecting some other environment does not make up for the damage that they’re going to do and it definitely doesn’t make up for the racist and colonial acts they’re committing in Alaska."
Political theory and constitutional democracy junior Liam Richichi, who serves as MSU Democrat's secretary, said he understands the pressure the Biden-Administration was facing, citing the war in Ukraine and the EU's refusal to use Russian oil as a reason for the U.S. to ramp up its oil exports.
Richichi acknowledges that approval of the Willow Project seems counterintuitive to Biden’s promises of reducing carbon emissions, but says the aid provided to the EU through this export of oil will help to make the countries more stable, giving them the ability to reach their climate goals later on.
“If we allow these economies just to kind of flop on their belly without Russian oil, it’s going to be a lot longer until they bounce back and then we have to wait until that bounce back for more climate action to happen,” Richichi said. “It’s kind of like the long-term gains, that’s kind of how I look at it."
Because ConocoPhillips held existing oil leases in the NPR-A , some believe that Biden may have had his hands tied when it came to approving the project and turning it down might have led to further legal action from the company.
Estrada-White disagrees. He said there was more the Biden-Administration could have done to prevent the project from being approved.
“There’s a very strong legal argument that Earthjustice has been putting together, I believe, against the Willow Project and so I think that’s sort of just a fallback for the Biden-Administration, a cop-out almost,” he said.
When it comes to the potential legal action Biden could have faced for denying the project, Bessette says Biden should have stuck to his climate change agenda and had a “bring it on” mindset when it came to possible repercussions.
“So what he gets some legal action? He could have at least stalled it. We know that on the fossil fuel side of things, they are the first to prolong and delay and try to get things held up in court, I don’t know why Biden doesn’t do the same thing,” Bessette said.
Estrada-White said the MSU Sunrise Movement plans to look towards the National Sunrise Movement for its next steps in advocating against the project.
MSU’s Sunrise reposted a message from The National Sunrise Movement’s page following the approval of the project. It stated, “Instead of sticking to his own climate goals and listening to the people of Village of Nuiqsut and the millions of young people who carried the party for the last three election cycles, he is letting the fossil fuel industry have their way.”