Last week the Biden administration released a study recommending a massive oil development on Alaska’s North Slope. If approved, the project would become one of the largest drilling developments ever established in the United States, permanently altering the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the country, the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. Operating under the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management’s “preferred alternative” for ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow Project will include three sites, as opposed to the originally proposed five sites. However, this marginally scaled-down alternative still presents major environmental concerns, including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, the public health of local Native communities, and the impact on wildlife.
ConocoPhillips is a Houston-based oil and gas corporation that operates in 15 countries with approximately one-third of its U.S. production coming from Alaska. Between 1988 and 2015, it was responsible for almost 1% of all global industrial greenhouse gas emissions. The Political Economy Research Institute ranked the company 13th among corporate producers of air pollution in the United States and in 1990, ConocoPhillips paid $23 million to families in Oklahoma after a nearby refinery caused cancer and other illnesses.
Wilderness Society Senior Regional Director Karlin Nageak Itchoak warned that, “Willow is a carbon bomb that cannot be allowed to explode in the Arctic.” The Willow project would bring about 219 wells, 267 miles of pipeline, and 35 miles of roadways to Alaska’s Western Arctic. The area is home to many vulnerable species including polar bears, caribou and yellow-billed loons. The construction and operation of this project can be expected to disrupt wildlife migration, destroy habitats, pollute air and water, interfere with subsistence practices, and generate approximately 280 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
The capitalists responsible for these crimes believe they can continue raking in huge profits while the people and land suffer the inevitable consequences. Their commitment to destruction reaches levels of absurdity.
In a clear example of the sickness of capitalism, in order to mitigate the effect of melting permafrost in Alaska that is largely due to the combustion of their products, ConocoPhillips plans to install “chillers” — devices used to keep the permafrost firm enough through the summer to support the drilling equipment and infrastructure required to continue extracting fossil fuels year round. The Willow project is expected to produce about 160,000 barrels of oil per day for around 30 years, equal to the annual emissions of around 66 new coal-fired power plants. Temperatures are projected to continue rising exponentially in Arctic Alaska due to climate change driven by these extractive fossil fuel industries.
The infrastructure required to drill as well as gravel roads, pipelines and well casings will also contribute to a more rapidly thawing permafrost. How long are we supposed to believe these “chillers” ConocoPhillips seeks to employ are capable of preventing a failure that would lead to yet another ecological disaster? A pipeline failure in December 2022 spilled 14,000 barrels of oil into a creek in Kansas, affecting communities and wildlife for generations. Capitalists persist in their dangerous schemes, seeking huge profits while destroying local ecosystems in the process and further heightening the potential for climate catastrophe in the future.
In 2022, the West’s top 5 energy firms siphoned off nearly $200 billion in profit from within their exploitative industries. Much of these ill-gotten gains ended up in the hands of their shareholders, resulting in massive paydays for investment firms and executives in the form of dividends and share buybacks. In Europe, windfall taxes were passed to mitigate the greed of corporations like Exxon and Shell, effectively reappropriating billions of dollars from the companies to give directly back to households. ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance in a 2022 earnings report stated that the firm had “returned $15 billion of capital to shareholders and achieved record production,” while “adding new high-quality strategic projects to enhance our global portfolio for decades to come.”
The Native Village of Nuiqsut and the City of Nuiqsut, located about 36 miles from the proposed Willow project, are already surrounded by oil wells and are actively experiencing some of the ecological and health impacts that will be exacerbated by future oil and gas development. Community leaders say representatives from the Bureau of Land Management have not listened to their concerns and have made it clear that moving this project forward regardless of the negative effects it will have on their traditional lands is the highest priority. ConocoPhillips and supporters of the project claim that it will bring much-needed jobs and revenue to the region, along with greater domestic energy independence and security.
These claims are obviously short-sighted. It is not a coincidence that these are the same benefits that are touted by fossil fuel companies and government officials whose interests always lie in the profitability of these developments and never in the safety, health and sustainability of communities. A great deal of effort is put into convincing communities of the benefits of fossil fuel projects, as U.S. politicians have no reason to provide them with a sustainable solution to legitimate concerns workers and families have about their economic stability and energy supply.
The Biden administration has yet to put forward a plan to transition to renewable energy, and instead continues to posture as a leading force in the fight against climate change. While mainstream media outlets forward a narrative praising Biden’s administration for its climate policy, the president and his cohort carry on granting massive deals to oil and gas companies, opening public lands to be leased for drilling on an even greater scale. Biden’s administration approved 3,557 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first year, while Trump’s first-year total only reached 2,658. The approval of these projects indicates a reversal of Biden’s supposed commitment to the Paris Agreement, a policy championed by his predecessor Obama and a major cornerstone of his own presidential platform.
If the recommended proposal moves forward, the Willow project would likely be the first of many future fossil fuel developments on this ecologically significant land. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Biden in August 2022, mandates the federal government to auction off leases on federal land in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. government is currently auctioning off almost one million acres in the Alaska Cook Inlet, home of threatened beluga and humpback whale species. The auction received a bid from HilCorp Alaska in December 2022. Environmental groups are attempting to use the judicial system to challenge the sale given its potential ecological impacts. It is uncertain how successful they will be in light of the Biden administration’s complete failure to enact adequate climate policy.
The Biden administration appears to believe that by advancing domestic oil and gas production, energy prices will remain relatively manageable while other economic factors for working-class communities become more and more unmanageable. The loss of access to Russian energy imports as well as greater energy demand from Europe, both caused by a NATO-provoked escalation of war in Ukraine, along with a looming economic downturn will undoubtedly factor into Biden’s future climate agenda. PRC President Xi Jinping met with Gulf Arab leaders in December 2022 in a move to establish oil and gas trade in yuan, a decision which could bolster the currency internationally while diminishing the U.S. dollar’s influence on global trade. Compared to the health of U.S. capitalism and the position of the U.S. empire, saving the climate is barely an afterthought for the Biden administration.