In the News

Are protected cold environments really that safe? It seems not!

Vicki Woolven

16th March 2023

At the weekend the US government announced that it was imposing limits on oil and gas drilling in 16 million acres of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean - yet on Monday President Biden approved the highly controversial Willow Project - a massive oil and gas drilling project in the remote North Slope region of Alaska.

This is not the first time that protected areas of the tundra have been opened up for exploitation. Just before Trump exited the White House in 2021 he announced that he was opening up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. The giant Alaskan wilderness is home to many important species, including polar bears, caribou and wolves and is often described as the last wilderness in America. Now whilst none of us will be surprised to see Trump's complete disregard for nature, many of us will be shocked that Biden seems to have a cavalier attitude to the environment, particularly when he has recently signed agreements to limit carbon emissions and protect biodiversity.

What is the Willow Project?

  • The Willow Project will be able to produce of nearly 600 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years.
  • ConocoPhillips - the oil company behind the project - and Alaska’s government say that it will bring much needed jobs to the region.
  • However, there has been strong opposition from environmental groups and some local communities who say that it will impact the climate and wildlife, as well as damage the environment.
  • The Willow Project will be one of the largest oil projects in the USA, involving drilling inside the National Petroleum Reserve, a huge 23 million-acre site in Alaska.
  • The area is owned by the government and is the largest area of wild, undisturbed public land in the US – it is supposed to be protected.
  • ConocoPhillips estimates that at its peak the drilling will produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day - or an estimated 578 million barrels over the life of the project (around 30 years).

What do supporters of the project say?

  • ConocoPhillips has said the project will generate £14 billion in earnings for federal and state governments and local communities – and will lead to a positive multiplier effect for the economy.
  • The company also says the construction would create 2,000 jobs, much needed in this remote area.
  • Some indigenous leaders had also expressed support for the project – many people from indigenous communities are already employed in the oil and gas industry in Alaska.

What do opponents of the project say?

  • Environmental groups argue that the project contradicts Biden's promise to fight climate change. Two years ago, he announced an aim to reduce emissions by 50-52 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Campaigners, The Sierra Group, said: "It's the wrong move and will be a disaster for wildlife, lands, communities, and our climate."
  • Anti-Willow videos posted on TikTok have been viewed by tens of millions of people, creating a surge of opposition support.
  • More than a million letters of protest were sent to the White House, and over 3 million people signed the online petition calling for Willow to be halted.
  • Some Iñupiat groups have said the project would have a devastating impact on communities and would worsen climate change.
  • Members of the Nuiqsut community, who live closest to the development site, are concerned that the drilling will disturb the caribou that the villagers rely on for food, and that the pollution could affect their health.

Curriculum links

This is an important development in terms of global resource management and fits in well with both the cold environments option and the energy option for resource management at GCSE, as well as resource security at A-Level.

Read more here...

Vicki Woolven

Vicki Woolven is Subject Lead for Key Stage 4 Humanities at tutor2u. Vicki previously worked as a Head of Geography and Sociology for many years, leading her department to be one of the GA's first Centres of Excellent, and has been a content writer, senior examiner and local authority Key Practitioner for Humanities.

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