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Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

The Willow Project’s Approval Is Unacceptable—How Do We Stop It From Happening Again?

Fossil fuel mega-projects are incompatible with President Biden’s climate goals. These three critical actions can help stop projects like Willow in the future.

President Joe Biden meets with staff in the Oval Office on Monday, January 23, 2023, to discuss the Willow Project.

This week, the Biden administration officially approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, a massive oil drilling project in Alaska’s Western Arctic. This mega-project will be one of the largest oil and gas developments on federal lands, locking us into 30 years of extraction in sensitive ecosystems near Alaska Native communities. 

Let’s not mince words. This decision is an unacceptable government giveaway to the fossil fuel industry, directly at odds with President Biden’s climate leadership. As Big Oil rakes in record-breaking profits, it’s cashing in at the expense of our climate, communities, and public lands. We can’t let this can’t happen again. 


Here are three key steps the Biden administration and Congress must take to stop future climate and environmental justice disasters like the Willow Project (click the links below to skip to that section):

  1. The Biden administration must embed a consistent climate test into the Council for Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) greenhouse gas guidance under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Climate-polluting mega-projects have no place in an equitable, clean energy future–and it’s time to update federal environmental review processes to reflect that. 
  2. Congress must pass legislation to end all forms of fossil fuel subsidies
  3. The Biden administration must align the federal fossil fuel leasing program with the president’s stated national climate and environmental justice commitments. 

How do we do this? Read on. But first, let’s catch up on what’s happened with the Willow Project.

Remind me, what’s the Willow Project? 

The Willow Master Development Plan, better known as the Willow Project, is a 30-year plan by ConocoPhillips to drill in Alaska’s fragile Western Arctic near Indigenous communities. Back in 2021, ConocoPhillips told investors that the development plan could be “the next great Alaska [oil] hub.” But frontline leaders like Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and environmentalists saw ConocoPhillips’ proposal for what it was: a climate disaster, perpetuating environmental injustice. 

Fast forward to February 2023. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a final environmental impact statement for the Willow Project that drew fierce criticism from Indigenous leaders and the climate movement. The City of Nuiqsut and the Native Village of Nuiqsut penned a powerful letter to BLM outlining concerns about the project, including uncontrolled gas releases, public health risks, and threats to subsistence and traditional ways of life. Others noted that the Willow Project was a massive fossil fuel giveaway of federal land, just as ConocoPhillips announced they had raked in an eye-popping $18.7 billion of profits in 2022.

Blog Post Image - CEO Ryan Lance

ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance. ConocoPhillips announced they raked in an eye-popping $18.7 billion of profits in 2022.  (Photo: ©2014 Bartolomej Tomic/Wikimedia CC by 2.0)

Climate activists warned that the Willow Project would also result in significant climate pollution. The Arctic is already warming four times faster than the rest of the world, and climate experts have been clear: we cannot continue approving new fossil fuel infrastructure if we want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And even BLM’s environmental review recognized the project’s significant climate impacts. 

But this week, BLM announced that it would go ahead with the Willow Project–despite how incongruous it was with President Biden’s overall climate goals and environmental justice commitments. The Record of Decision approved Alternative E of the Willow Project, which would pump at least 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere over its lifetime. 

(You can read Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic’s (SILA) response to the Willow Project’s approval now.)

This deeply unfortunate decision puts a stain on the president’s climate legacy. And in the wake of this disappointing step backwards, one thing is clear: President Biden needs to use the executive action and regulatory tools at his disposal to put a stop to future fossil fuel giveaways. 

>> Curious to learn more? You can read Evergreen Action’s paper on the federal fossil fuel leasing program–and how President Biden can align it to deliver on climate and put people over profit – from June 2022 now. <<


How to Prevent the Next Willow Project:

1. New Energy Infrastructure Must Align with President Biden’s Climate Goals

Let’s start with the basics: the federal government should only approve climate-safe energy infrastructure that does not significantly contribute to the greenhouse gas pollution driving the climate crisis. 

As the Biden administration turbocharges efforts to invest in a clean energy economy, including through implementation of the climate investments in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), it must also decline to build new energy projects that we know are incompatible with a safer climate future. But what regulatory tools should the Biden administration use to advance this planetary imperative?

Meet the climate test. It’s a regulatory tool with a straightforward premise: when federal agencies carry out environmental reviews for proposed major infrastructure projects, they should analyze if the proposed project is compatible with our climate goals. (Think: President Biden’s national and international climate action commitments, as well as the science-based 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway.) And if the proposed project isn’t compatible? Once the environmental review process is complete, the U.S. government should reject any proposed energy project that isn’t aligned with our national climate commitments. 

Here’s the good news: the Biden administration’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) can seize an upcoming opportunity to embed a version of the climate test into federal agencies’ environmental review processes. CEQ advises the President about climate change, environmental justice, and more. They’re also responsible for coordinating implementation of the NEPA, a landmark environmental law that requires federal agencies to conduct environmental reviews of proposed major federal actions that could significantly impact the environment.

In January, CEQ took an important step to ensure federal agencies consistently embed thorough considerations of a projects’ climate impacts in their NEPA environmental reviews, and issued interim guidance to federal agencies. Now, CEQ must strengthen this guidance to encourage all federal agencies to conduct an objective, quantitative climate test on proposed new energy infrastructure through NEPA. 

By quantitatively demonstrating whether a project is compatible with our national climate goals, a consistent climate test through NEPA would better equip decision makers to only approve climate-smart projects. To be clear, the federal government should reject any proposed new energy projects that are not compatible with national climate action commitments. In this way, embedding a climate test within NEPA guidance would help realize the Biden administration’s “whole-of-government” approach to the climate crisis.


2. Ending Big Oil’s Subsidies

Big Oil is raking in record-breaking profits at the expense of environmental justice communities, working families, and our climate. They’re also profiteering from the global market disruption fuelled by the war in Ukraine. Last year alone, the five largest publicly-traded fossil fuel companies made a staggering $264.3 billion in pre-tax profits. But as fossil fuel companies line their pockets, the U.S. tax code is brimming with fossil fuel giveaways – to the tune of $120 billion in FY22. It’s time for the U.S. government to end fossil fuel subsidies once and for all. 

Back in 2021, President Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels. This executive order was a significant leap forward, but only a fraction of fossil fuel subsidies actually fell under the purview of federal agencies. The lion’s share of federal subsidies for Big Oil comes in the form of tax breaks that can only be changed by Congress.

Blog Post Image - Biden Executive Order

President Biden signs executive orders on January 27, 2021.

Just last week, President Biden took another step in the right direction and proposed a FY24 budget that would eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. But now it’s up to Congress to eliminate the bulk of Big Oil’s tax subsidies through legislative change. For example, Congress should act on the End Polluter Welfare Act sponsored in the last Congress by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). And it should pass Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D-CA) End Polluter Welfare for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), a bill that would ban tax credits that support the use of captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), a process that refers to the extraction of crude oil from a field that cannot be extracted otherwise.

Similarly, as fossil fuel companies rake in eye-popping profits on the back of wartime profiteering, Congress must pass a windfall profits tax on fossil fuel companies. For example, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Ro Khanna’s Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax bill would prevent the largest fossil fuel companies from exploiting the energy crisis for profit, while providing consumers with relief rebates.

>> Read Evergreen Action’s paper on ending fossil fuel subsidies now. <<


3. The Federal Fossil Fuel Leasing Program Must Align with President Biden’s Climate Goals

America’s federal lands and waters are scarred with oil, gas, and coal extraction sites, producing the very substances that fuel the climate crisis. And the Willow Project is the latest–and most deeply worrying–example that the U.S. federal fossil fuel leasing program remains incompatible with the President’s stated climate pollution target and the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

While the Biden administration faces unfortunate constraints from federal courts, and from the leasing provisions of the IRA, they must do everything they can to meet their climate goals within the federal fossil fuel leasing program. 

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That means that the BLM should limit new leasing on public lands by using its authority to conduct large-scale withdrawals of federal lands from leasing availability. BLM should also use its existing authority to impose a substantive carbon limit on new leasing and permitting in an upcoming rulemaking. And the Department of the Interior (DOI) should limit the rate of onshore oil and gas production from existing leases to align with climate commitments.

Offshore, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) should harness its authority to limit the number of lease sales or areas available for lease. And BLM and EPA both should strengthen and finalize strong protective standards for methane pollution from the oil and gas sector in their ongoing rulemakings.