The Willow Project: Inevitable Disaster for People and Planet

By Tokata Iron Eyes

Date: 03/27/2023

On Monday, March 13th, 2023, the Biden Administration approved the controversial Willow Project, the largest fossil fuel project the United States has reckoned with in decades. An $8 billion initiative of ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest crude oil producer, the project will nearly double existing oil production in the state.

The federal government approved Willow despite massive, widespread opposition. More than three million people signed a petition demanding that Biden adhere to his stated climate goals and forestall the project. Since that didn’t happen, now we must say enough is enough and hold the president accountable. Please sign our petition to Biden demanding he keep his climate promises. He must deny all further fossil fuel leases and end drilling on public lands and waterways.

The millions-strong resistance to Willow shows the power of social media in advocacy. Many of those people took action after bearing witness to intensive social media advocacy campaigns, most notably coming from the app TikTok. Yes, social media has its issues, but it also appeals to younger generations of voters in the U.S. and grabs the attention of a wide and diverse international populace. TikTok isn’t just a forum to lip sync to your favorite song or share the antics of your cats. It has proven itself to be a critical tool for spreading awareness on the issue of climate change and social movements at large.

Let’s be clear. This movement’s momentum has not dwindled at the news of the project's approval. Six environmental conservation groups have since filed suit against the federal government, claiming federal agencies have violated the National Environmental Policy Act because of the project’s prospective impact on the already sensitive ecosystems of the Arctic, its endangerment of Indigenous communities — their traditions, ways of life, and health and safety — and its contribution to the climate crisis as a whole.


This map from the Bureau of Land Management shows the site of the Willow development on the North Slope of Alaska. Willow’s drill sites are marked by squares. (Bureau of Land Management)

The Department of the Interior ultimately approved a reduced version of the proposed Willow master development plan (down to three from an original proposal of five drill sites). However, this apparent 40 percent reduction does little to nothing to limit the amount of actual fossil fuel consumption which will occur. The Oil and Gas Association says the three drill sites will still be able to meet their 180,000 barrel-per-day projections. The Oil and Gas Association has also stated that appeals to expand upon the project in the future are not entirely out of the question.

ConocoPhillips has held developmental leases in Alaska since the 1990s. The Willow Project furthers the company’s infrastructure in the North Slope area of the Arctic, and is being utilized to further an exploitive, colonial, and genocidal agenda. Extractive industries have long acted as a force of political and economic terror when it comes to their interactions with indigenous peoples in Alaska. When Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, it was responding to a twin rise in Native activism and pressure from oil companies to pave the way for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System after oil was discovered there a few years prior.

In order to gain access to land, companies like ConocoPhillips promised lucrative business to poor rural communities in need of basic infrastructure at the expense of their food, water, and land security, and overall health. Thus began the systemic displacement of Alaska Natives and a new and effective method of active tribal erasure. From where I sit, these relationships seem akin to putting guns to the heads of Native People. The need for essential resources has split opinion in Native communities and complicated the Indigenous voice of Alaska. How does one take a strong stand for the Earth and one’s own sacred lands when some of the only economic benefits one’s family can enjoy stem from the thing that threatens them?


The community closest to the site of the Willow Project is called Nuiqsut, and its people are no strangers to the consequences of oil and gas. Surrounded already by the Alpine and Prudhoe Bay oil fields, the Willow development will only exacerbate an ongoing health crisis in Nuiqsut, where residents have experienced higher levels of cancer and respiratory illness generationally. They’ve also had to be evacuated from their homelands on several occasions already due to fossil fuel blowouts and leaks.

Realistically, Alaska won’t see any economic benefit for years. Furthermore, in the construction of Willow, there will inevitably be the existence of man camps, temporary housing for those working on the project, the likes of which have been known to increase violence and risk within Native communities. Man camps are known to contribute to the global crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, threatening the safety and wellbeing of an already vulnerable population.

For all these reasons, we must act. Please tell the president: no more drilling on our public lands and waters. Respect the sacred, and protect the Earth for the next seven generations.

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