The supreme irony of the Biden administration’s decision announced Monday to green-light ConocoPhillips’ massive, $8 billion Willow oil and gas project in a pristine part of Alaska’s North Slope can be found in a word: thermosiphons.
Since the 1960s, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Scientists predict that the region will warm by an average of 2.2 degrees C (4 degrees F) over the next 30 years, thawing the Arctic ice and permafrost faster than is now occurring and undermining infrastructure on the tundra, including around heavy drilling rigs. To deal with this, ConocoPhillips plans eventually to install chillers—thermosiphons—to keep the ground frozen hard enough to support the rigs that extract the oil whose burning releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which adds to global warming, which is melting the permafrost. That is not exactly what you would call a virtuous circle.
Dyani Chapman, state director of the Alaska Environment Research and Policy Center, told The New York Times last month that "it's absurd that as our tundra is melting because of climate change, ConocoPhillips plans to use 'chillers' to re-freeze tundra so it can drill for oil that will, in turn, make climate change even worse."
The decision to go ahead with a scaled-down project—three drilling pads instead of the originally proposed five—is outraging environmental advocates and their allies. They point out that throughout its 30-year life, burning the estimated 600 million barrels of oil extracted by Willow will generate an estimated 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to the emissions of 2 million average automobiles. The nonprofit public interest law organization EarthJustice notes that “Willow would bring at least 219 wells, 267 miles of pipelines, and 30 miles of roads to a vast public lands area in Alaska’s Western Arctic, permanently altering a globally significant and ecologically rich landscape. [...] Willow will also open the gates to future oil and gas development for decades to come.” They also note that the administration itself has “substantial concerns” about the project.
On the other side, there’s grumbling over the administration’s announcement Sunday that it is blocking future oil and gas development in the entire Arctic Ocean and more than 13 million of the 23 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska, which is also where the Willow project is to be located. The lobby American Petroleum Institute isn’t happy with these new protections:
“In the current energy crisis, the Biden administration should be focused on strengthening U.S. energy security and standing with the working families of Alaska by supporting the responsible development of federal lands and waters – not acting to restrict it,” Frank Macchiarola, API’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said in a statement. “We urge the administration to end the mixed signals on energy policy and focus instead on real solutions for the American people.”
Though climate activists signaled approval for the administration’s Arctic protection plans, they aren’t happy that what they call the Willow project “carbon bomb” is moving ahead. Lisa Friedman writes:
“It’s insulting that Biden thinks this will change our minds about the Willow project,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn’t make sense, and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project.”
First proposed in 2017, Willow sparked a fierce battle in and out of the courts to block it. After a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) environmental review was released, Donald Trump gave the go-ahead to the project in 2020. However, saying climate was insufficiently taken into account, a judge in 2021 sent the BLM’s review back for a redo, which was completed last July. Still not good enough, according to activists. The Willow Project, they say, is simply not compatible with President Biden’s climate commitment of a 50-52% cut in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. Most recently, 25 Democratic lawmakers signed a letter calling Willow "ill-conceived and misguided." The progressive change.org’s petition opposing the project has been signed by 3.2 million people.
If that were the whole story, it would have been easy to turn down the project. But political and legal concerns complicate matters. ConocoPhillips already holds many leases in the area and has the right to undertake at least some drilling, according to legal experts. Plus, the entire Alaskan congressional delegation, including freshman Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, back it. A Yup'ik, Peltola is the most prominent of many Alaskan Natives who support the project. But not all Alaskan tribes, especially those living closest to the project, take that stance:
Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic warned in a statement that "if approved, this project would be the largest on public lands and would set back our national climate goals tremendously."
"Willow would lock us into extraction for another 30 years and could potentially be the catalyst for future oil expansion in the Arctic," the grassroots group said."In 2021, a federal judge rejected the Interior Department's 2020 approvals of Willow for lack of adequate consideration of the impact of the surrounding environment. Regardless of the precautions put in place, there is no denying that fossil fuels are single-handedly the most damaging contributor to the global climate emergency, especially the Arctic."
The whole matter put Deb Haaland, the Laguna Pueblo Native secretary of the Interior—which oversees the BLM—in a tight spot. As a congresswoman, she opposed Willow:
Leaders of major environmental organizations including the League of Conservation Voters, Alaska Wilderness League, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice and others gathered two weeks ago for what two participants described as an emotionally charged meeting with Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary. Ms. Haaland, who opposed Willow when she served in Congress, choked up as Alaska Natives begged her to block the project and she explained her agency had to make difficult choices, the attendees said. Activists left with the impression that the decision to approve Willow had been made.
Willow is a huge project. But it’s just a small part of the big picture. That picture has been laid out for us in report after report. To keep the global temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees C (2.7F), according to a study conducted by the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change, no new oil and gas development can occur. The 2021 Production Gap report by the United Nations Environment Program stated that global fossil fuel production must sharply and immediately decline to be consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. And the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 report says there’s no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply.
Thermosiphons won’t save us.