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Analysis of The Willow Project

Be So Good They Can't Ignore You

Photo by Ernest Karchmit on Unsplash

This paper is a shorter version of a longer research paper by Jared Bashaw. You can read the full version by looking up A Legal and Ethical Analysis of The Willow Project by Jared Bashaw.

In 2020, ConocoPhillips proposed their plan for an arctic oil expedition called “The Willow Project. The oil and gas company projected that the expedition would produce $8.7B in royalties and tax revenues for the government; these estimates obviously appealed to the Trump Administration, which immediately approved the project. President Donald Trump was more adamantly against environmental laws and regulations than any other president in history, the New York Times wrote that he “has called global warming a hoax and pulled the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change.” The decision to approve Willow was widely praised by Oklahoma and Florida representatives and officials, AKA people who receive money from oil projects, it was a beautiful sight: a bunch of corrupt politicians patting each other on the back for letting the planet be harmed for profit. Trumps approval of Willow guaranteed the emission of more greenhouse gas than any other project on American public lands: 250 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. In 2020, this project was essentially treated as a free $8.7 billion to the government, however, environmental groups were quick to act, with a lawsuit being filed on July 12, 2021, by Earthjustice against ConocoPhillips.

The lawsuit against Willow made a strong case, citing violations of the Clean Water Act, (33 U.S.C §§ 1251 et seq.) the National Environmental Policy Act, (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), and the Endangered Species Conservation Act; (16 U.S.C. §1531 et seq.). In August of 2021, Federal Judge Sharon Gleason made the decision in favor of Earthjustice and moved to cancel the permit for the Willow Project, indicating that it never should have been approved under the Trump administration as the impact on the climate was “not fully accounted for”. However, this decision was promptly undermined later decisions Judge Gleason made about the Willow Project in 2023. ConocoPhillips adjusted the plans for Willow and resubmitted it to the Biden administration and gained approval for the project in March of 2023. An article from the Atlantic wrote in response to the decision that Willow “would damage the complex local tundra ecosystem and, according to an older government estimate, release the same amount of greenhouse gasses annually as half a million homes.”

Earthjustice filed another lawsuit against ConocoPhillips, before the case was decided, Judge Gleason allowed the company to move forward with Willow by denying the Earthjustice attorney’s motion for preliminary injunction. This means that ConocoPhillips has already been moving forward with their construction plans in the Arctic since April of 2023, and in November, the lawsuit was settled in favor of ConocoPhillips, and Willow was approved.

So, what were the adjustments that ConocoPhillips made to the plans for Willow? Surely, one would think that if the changes ConocoPhillips made to the plans in between the submissions to the federal government resulted in the same amount of harm, then Judge Gleason would just stick to her previous decision; especially in such an ethical dilemma as this, one which impacts the future of every person on this planet because it promises to release 287 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Ella Nilsen from CNN reported in March of 2023:

“Willow was proposed by ConocoPhillips and originally approved by the Trump administration in 2020. ConocoPhillips was initially approved to construct five drill pads, which the Biden administration ultimately reduced to three. Three pads will allow the company to drill about 90% of the oil they are pursuing.”

Judge Gleason approved the plans despite the lawsuit, and despite the plans being functionally identical to the plans she denied two years prior. The circumstances hadn’t changed! Let’s look at why this decision was made:

In January of 2021, right after Biden took office, the president signed an executive order into the law, that revoked the permit for the Keystone Pipeline. Keystone was another Trump approved oil project, that would have transported millions of tons of oil across the country. Biden, in Executive Order 13990, points out that if climate change is perpetuated and extreme weather continues to destroy our nation then those factors will harm the economy more than benefit it. The order also makes the point that if we were to build the pipeline, and so many jobs were created to have an economic benefit to the country that is entirely based on the oil industry, then that is still not a desirable outcome. It is undesirable for the nation for two reasons:

  1. There are limited resources that can be devoted to developing energy for the nation.
  2. Energy infrastructure, once it is installed, is relatively permanent.

If we commit to extracting millions of tons of oil in the next 30 years, that is a massive commitment to an industry that should be replaced by then. The extraction of oil is harmful to the planet, and it should be disincentivized so that the market will demand a more renewable source of energy. We want to see innovation in renewable energy markets instead of increased reliance on an old industry. With more investments in pipelines that will result in millions of Americans relying on outdated technology and infrastructure for their energy needs, the United States will be left behind as the rest of the world establishes and grows in renewable energy sources. The Order states then, that the focus of the United States in the future should be on “the development of a clean energy economy, which will in turn create good jobs.” You can sum up the reasons why investing in a pipeline to transport crude oil across the nation is a bad idea in a few words: Projects like these do not serve the national interest, they do not move us forward technologically, they will not benefit the economy in the long run, and it will ensure that the impacts of climate change will only get worse. As Camila Domonoske from NPR writes:

“According to the International Energy Agency, the oil industry would need to spend 50% of [their profit] on clean energy by 2030 to be on track to meet global climate targets. But right now, oil companies are spending just 2.5% of their capital, collectively, on green power.”

The lawsuit filed by Earthjustice argued that the Willow Project’s approval should be deemed “arbitrary and capricious” and completely revoked, the same way that the Keystone Pipeline was. The case for this logic was that in the approval for Willow, the government failed to consider how the carbon emissions that ConocoPhillips will expel into the atmosphere will cause damage to the environment. The plaintiff cites the three instances of the law being violated as stated above, (Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Conservation Act) how Willow will affect the climate, and how the law is overlooked; I also call you to consider the arguments that Executive Order 13990 advocated for. Willow is fundamentally the same case as the Keystone Pipeline, it does not serve the national interest. The benefit to the nation and its people is a short-term economic boost that could otherwise be achieved by investing in more sustainable energy practices, rather than taking money away from them by drilling in the Arctic, and in the long run, Willow will harm us. The stated goal of Biden is to be a climate leader, so it stands to reason that the government does not want to undermine the position of climate leadership; that is what the Keystone pipeline did. Willow does the same thing and proposing an oil project that undermines the leadership and the national interest of the U.S. should result in the project being canceled and the permit being revoked. Judge Gleason recognized this when she deemed that the original plans for Willow were arbitrary and capricious, and having two fewer drilling pads does not change national interest, it doesn’t change the damage done to the Arctic, and it certainly does not change the law.
Rosemary Ahtuangaruak from the Hill writes:

“Make no mistake, Willow will be the largest new oil extraction project on federal lands and will do irreversible damage to the sensitive Arctic landscape. The proposed development will include the construction of up to 250 oil wells, 37 miles of gravel roads, 386 miles of pipelines, airstrips, and processing facilities.”

It all makes one wonder what the decision is actually based on. Does it simply come down to the amount of oil that is physically being extracted? Is it the number of drill pads? Why does that matter if the resulting environmental harm is the same? What is the point of regulating carbon emissions at all, if we can’t agree that a project emitting 287 million tons of CO2 is bad? Isn’t requiring that 90% of the oil be extracted instead of 100% just rearranging chairs on the deck of the sinking ship?

To understand why Judge Gleason would possibly have an incentive to rule in favor of ConocoPhillips, even when it means ignoring due process and drawing absurd conclusions, we have to look at the financial incentives at play in this suit. ConocoPhillips has a lot of sway in the state of Alaska, they have ramped up their lobbying spending in the state in the past couple of years. While one could easily criticize the Biden Administration as a whole for not making decisions that will be good for the future economic gain over the present, we must essentially understand that the economy of Alaska depends on practices that destroy our planet. Can we really expect Judge Gleason to make a decision that would cripple her state, simply because those who came before her built a system that overly relies on oil and gas money? One notable article about the Willow Project claims that Willow isn’t even the problem, that it’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of emissions, and that the real problem is what Willow represents.

While Willow is the largest oil and gas expedition in United States history, Willow is only one of 6,430 oil and gas drilling permits that the Biden Administration has approved. Despite the promises to make progress on climate change, and the stated goal to be a climate leader on the global scale, Biden has approved more oil and gas projects than Trump. This administration, in trying to rely less on imported oil and gas has created a norm of approving projects as outlandish and irresponsible as Willow, and as many argue, it reflects more badly on the president than any other individual. However, while it is valid to point out that Willow is part of a larger problem of Biden not taking climate change seriously enough, one cannot excuse the massive failure that is Judge Gleason’s decision, which more than anything reflects that states like Alaska have built too much reliance on the oil and gas industry. We must make more responsible decisions when regulating this industry and focus on moving the economy away from this form of energy that kills us and towards more sustainable alternatives.

From its conception, the Willow Project was unethical and illegal. When ConocoPhillips talks about Willow, they simply talk about how much money it is going to bring the community, and how many jobs will be created. They think that by emphasizing the short-term economic benefit of the project, they can draw attention away from the long-term consequences we will have to face, both economic and humanitarian. How can we believe their opinions on climate change, when the shareholders actively voted down a proposal that required the company to set carbon emissions goals in compliance with the Paris Agreement? How can we think that the support for Willow isn’t just bought, when we look at their lobbying numbers? How can we trust our government when it claims that the Keystone pipeline “does not serve national interest”, but Willow as well as 6,430 more oil and gas projects, somehow do?

I hope we can recognize that this is not a legal and ethical decision. That the permit must be revoked, and that progress needs to be made. I would like to end this essay with this quote from Greenpeace USA:

“The Earth is 4.6 billion years old. Let’s scale that to 46 years. We have been here for 4 hours. Our industrial revolution began 1 minute ago. In that time, we have destroyed more than 50% of the world’s forests.
This isn’t sustainable”