The Willow Project Has Been Approved, How Will This Affect Global Environmentalism?

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On March 13th, 2023, the Biden administration approved the Willow project. Despite its unthreatening name, this project is anything but good for the environment. ConocoPhillips, an American oil company, sought approval to extract around 600 million barrels of oil on Alaska’s northern slope. This oil would generate as many emissions as an extra 2 million gas-powered cars yearly. The project would also fracture the already fragile arctic ecosystem, bringing habitat loss and affecting migration routes. Ironically, the project requires the refreezing of Alaskan permafrost, which was only thawed in the first place because of emissions from fossil fuels.

This approval directly contradicts Biden’s promise of “No more drilling on federal lands, period.” Environmentalists are outraged as Biden takes action entirely opposite for his campaign. Many groups are already preparing to launch court cases against the project, attempting to halt its development. If they fail, huge ecosystem impacts will ensue in the arctic, and an obscene amount of carbon will be released into the atmosphere.

The Willow Project Has Been Approved, How Will This Affect Global Environmentalism?
The Willow Project

The Failing Role-Model

America has been the leading perpetuator of global norms since the fall of the Soviet Union, whether other countries like it or not. Their economic and military might have often served as reasons for poorer countries to mimic the American system. Global media often portrays American culture as glamorous and desirable. Whether consciously or not, actions taken in America are in some way reflected in many other parts of the world. Because of this, the decisions of the Biden administration have cascading effects on environmental policies around the globe.

With the approval of the Willow Project, the U.S. has signaled to the rest of the world that it is okay to undertake massive drilling projects which endanger the health of fragile ecosystems and release climate-altering amounts of fossil fuels for burning. The Willow Project’s approval isn’t a standalone event; this will shift global norms away from environmental protection and towards big-business financial gain. The approval also stops the U.S. from being able to oppose any similar projects in other countries. American pressure can have huge effects on the political outcomes in other countries, for better or for worse, but Willow removes any opportunity for Environmental action by the States in the future. While they hadn’t been exerting much international pressure for environmental protection, the approval essentially shuts off that path they may have considered taking some time in the future.

The Willow Project Has Been Approved, How Will This Affect Global Environmentalism?
An International meeting

Another Excuse

Other countries can now use the Willow project to defend their oil expansion projects on the international stage. This does not only apply to typically oil-oriented states but also all states in accords, such as the Paris Agreement, seeing as the U.S. rejoined in 2022. If the States are doing it without opposition, why can’t other countries?

And it is very tough to oppose the U.S. Their global power is reflected in the fact that they often ignore the opinion of weaker countries. Even if members of the international community were to pressure the Biden administration to stop Willow, they could simply carry on as if there was no dissent. So, there is little point in even attempting to change the policies of this economic and military giant. Because of this, it is unlikely other countries will do much to speak out against the Willow Project, which leads to another layer of further oil exploitation in other countries:

As a completely random example, let’s say Germany was to oppose a new oil pipeline by Russia through their waters. Suppose Germany had not encouraged the cancellation of the Willow Project. In that case, Russia could easily deflect the German discontent, saying it was targeted at Russia unfairly, as they did not treat America with the same environmental concerns.

The Developing World

This ability to use the Willow Project as an excuse for other countries’ oil expansions will be especially influential in developing areas. Environmentalists generally agree that developed countries should bear the brunt of reducing environmental impacts, as they were the ones who put most of the emissions in the air in the first place. It would be unfair to say that poorer nations could not use the same development methods as the rich countries already had. However, that is not to say that developing areas have no role in environmental protection. Creating and testing more sustainable forms of development in richer countries allows the global south to incorporate these strategies themselves. But, if they instead see the expansion of the fossil fuel industry and promotion of unsustainable development, their rise will be characterized by the same environmental problems as has been seen for years.

This is quite morally defensible. How can people in rich countries, whose comfortable lives were founded on environmentally damaging development, and whose government has just approved a massive oil expansion project in a fragile ecosystem, possibly ask people living in poorer countries to live more sustainably? Stopping further expansion cannot prevent the entirety of this unfairness problem, but it can help.

A Disaster for Global Environmentalism

The approval of the Willow Project will promote global norms against sustainable practices, act as an excuse for other countries to expand their oil production, and promote unsustainable development in the developing world, on top of all the direct environmental impacts of the project itself. Now, we can only hope the approval gets reversed.

References

Dunaway, F. (2022, August 25). Big Oil Wants to Refreeze Alaska Permafrost — So It Can Keep Drilling There. Truthout. https://truthout.org/articles/big-oil-wants-to-refreeze-alaska-permafrost-so-it-can-keep-drilling-there/

kdaponte. (2023, March 13). Biden promised “no more drilling on federal lands, period.” He just broke that pledge to approve a massive oil project in Alaska. College of Social Sciences and Humanities. https://cssh.northeastern.edu/biden-promised-no-more-drilling-on-federal-lands-period-he-just-broke-that-pledge-to-approve-a-massive-oil-project-in-alaska/

Kelemen, M. (2022, September 20). What to expect at this week’s U.N. General Assembly. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/09/20/1123307621/united-nations-general-assembly

Mai, H. J. (2021, February 19). U.S. Officially Rejoins Paris Agreement On Climate Change. NPR.org. https://www.npr.org/2021/02/19/969387323/u-s-officially-rejoins-paris-agreement-on-climate-change

News, N. H. F. (2023, March 15). Environmental and Indigenous Groups Sue over Willow Oil-Drilling Project. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/environmental-and-indigenous-groups-sue-over-willow-oil-drilling-project/

Nilsen, E. (2023a, March 7). What to know about the controversial Willow oil drilling project in Alaska | CNN Politics. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/07/politics/willow-project-alaska-oil-explained-climate/index.html

Nilsen, E. (2023b, March 14). The Willow Project has been approved. Here’s what to know about the controversial oil-drilling venture | CNN Politics. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/14/politics/willow-project-oil-alaska-explained-climate/index.htmlRahman, K. (2023, March 6). Gen-Z TikTokers are fighting to stop Willow Project. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/gen-z-tiktokers-are-fighting-stop-willow-project-1785790

About Post Author

Simon Lindsay-Stodart

Simon is currently studying sustainability at McGill University with a minor in Political Science. He is passionate about sustainable urban development, state-level action, and individual sustainable lifestyle changes. He has been a passionate advocate for climate change prevention since he was very young, and likes to present ways to solve the problems we face as a society and as individuals.
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