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Why US move to drill for oil in Alaska could be an environmental disaster

The Biden administration has approved a controversial oil and gas drilling in Alaska, close to the Arctic Circle, reigniting a huge debate over rich nations’ commitment to battle the growing climate crisis by shifting to clean energy.     

But ConocoPhillips’ $7 billion Willow project — even at its scaled-back version —  is expected to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil daily. 

Activists say the project will have a significant climate and wildlife impact and generate up to 278 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas over its 30-year lifespan. That is equivalent to adding two million cars to US roads annually.

The US government’s decision on Monday follows an aggressive eleventh-hour campaign from opponents who had argued that the development of the three drill sites in northwestern Alaska conflicts with President Biden’s highly-publicised efforts to fight the climate crisis and shift to cleaner sources of energy.

The project is located in Alaska’s remote North Slope and inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a 9.3 million-hectare (23 million-acre) area that is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the US.

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Economy vs environment

While environmentalists have criticised the decision, arguing that it is inconsistent with Biden’s climate pledges, lawmakers representing Alaska have pushed for the project’s approval, stating that it is a much-needed investment in the region’s communities and will help boost domestic energy production. 

Those who support the Willow project also promise that the oil production will be cleaner than getting it from other countries like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. 

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, speaking at a press conference, questioned why the US  is not utilising its own resources, despite having a good environmental track record.

She welcomed the confirmation of the project as “good news,” saying that “this will mean jobs and revenue for Alaska” by bringing upwards of 180,000 barrels of oil per day into the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance also welcomed the decision, stating that it will enhance energy security, create good union jobs, and benefit Alaska Native communities.

A coalition of Alaska Native groups on the North Slope also supports the project, saying it could be a much-needed new source of revenue for the region and fund services, including education and healthcare.

Other Alaska Natives living closer to the planned project, such as city officials and tribal members in the Native village of Nuiqsut, are concerned about its health and environmental impacts. 

They have written a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, stating that Nuiqsut would be the most affected by the project’s consequences. 

The letter notes that other villages benefit financially from oil and gas activity but experience fewer impacts than Nuiqsut. 

Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen also criticised the Biden administration’s decision.

“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,” Dillen said.

 “We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals.”

In addition, online activism against the Willow project has surged on TikTok, resulting in over a million letters sent to the Biden administration against the project and over 3.6 million signatures on a petition to stop it.

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Conflicting interests

The controversy surrounding the Willow project highlights the complex and often conflicting interests in energy development and environmental protection. 

While some argue that the project will bring much-needed economic benefits and improve energy security, others raise concerns about the potential harm to local communities and the environment.

The International Energy Agency has called for a halt to new investments in oil and gas drilling if nations, including the US, hope to reach their 2050 goal of net-zero emissions — only as much planet-warming gas is released into the atmosphere as can be absorbed.
The energy sector accounts for 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and three-quarters of human-made greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

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