On Monday, the Biden administration green-lighted the Willow Project, a controversial oil drilling venture inside the Arctic Circle proposed by the fossil fuel giant ConocoPhillips. The decision was a bitter disappointment to the legions of young people who had turned out in 2020 to elect the man who had once promised an end to oil drilling on federal lands—“period, period, period.”
What happened? The White House, squeezed by Vladimir Putin’s war, believed it had no choice but to drill for oil right here in the US of A. By reducing our reliance on foreign energy in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine, our country would be made safer.
At least, that is what Willow’s champions would have you believe. In a statement celebrating President Biden’s decision, ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance declared that the project will play a role in “facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security.” Alaska’s congressional delegation echoed this sentiment in a joint essay in CNN, arguing that increasing domestic oil production is critical to ensuring the nation’s security.
I agree that this is an issue of national security. Willow’s defenders, however, have it backward. It is precisely because fossil fuel corporations like ConocoPhillips drill for oil at the expense of a livable climate that the White House should have rejected the project. Our nation needs a stable climate to be secure. That means transitioning off fossil fuels entirely—and making pariahs of their biggest boosters.
Still, the Alaska representatives’ argument is worth drilling into. In between gestures to Willow’s “social justice and racial equity priorities”—presumably referring to the Indigenous community leaders who have defended the project, even as others have strongly opposed it—and a feeble attempt to hold Biden innocent of breaking his campaign promise, the trio makes three core claims about our national security. They argue that the economy needs oil to run in the short term; an overreliance on foreign oil leaves America at the mercy of imperial petro-dictators; and we should therefore increase domestic oil production by approving the Willow Project.
In their words: importing foreign oil is a “recipe for the empowerment of [the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] and needless environmental devastation beyond our borders.” Translation: Why outsource destruction of the planet to a cartel of oil princes when we could enrich all-American oligarchs by bulldozing the wilderness in our own backyard?
Any reasonable person can agree to the first two claims. Until we can far more rapidly deploy renewables—something the federal government recently invested hundreds of billions of dollars to do—fossil fuels will remain an unavoidable energy source in American life. And the less oil and gas we use, the better a shot we have at forcing Putin’s war machine to grind to a halt.
Contrary to the Alaska lawmakers, however, the Willow Project will do little to meet America’s short-term energy needs. It will do even less to wean the country off foreign oil. Crude production in the Alaska North Slope is not expected to begin until 2029, at which point the clean-energy economy is likely to be robust enough to render Willow’s output unnecessary. Even then, because oil is a global commodity, there is little guarantee that Alaskan crude will fuel American activity: The country is expected to become a net oil exporter this year, if it is not already.
An increase in domestic oil production at the end of the decade, then, wouldn’t do much for our nation’s energy security. But by keeping the world hooked on fossil fuels for longer than is necessary, expanding domestic oil production would ensure the longevity of unaccountable, ultra-wealthy oligarchs threatening the global order.
I’m not just referring to Putin and the House of Saud. Time and time again, the executives running America’s petrochemical industry have placed their own interests over their country’s. Fred Koch, the oil magnate who built an empire off fossil fuels, infamously negotiated with Hitler on the eve of World War II to supply the Nazis with fuel. His descendants now help bankroll attacks on our democracy from within. More recently, anti-corruption NGO Global Witness has found evidence that Shell is exploiting a loophole in anti-Russia sanctions in order to claim solidarity with Ukraine while lining Putin’s pockets.
Or take Ryan Lance, the man behind the Willow Project. Just last week, Lance issued something of a threat to the White House: “if we don’t get [the oil] from Alaska… it’s going to come from probably someplace else around the world that has less environmental standards than what the state of Alaska has.” Perhaps Lance has Qatar in mind, where his company recently bought a stake in a nearly $29 billion gas project. So much for “facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security.”
The truth is that Lance and his ilk already had a chance to be American heroes and end the country’s dependence on foreign energy. Big Oil made record profits last year when Putin’s war drove up the cost of fossil fuels. Those profits could have been invested in finally developing the clean-tech solutions that the industry has promised for decades. Instead, the executives used those record-breaking sums to make a small class of owners marginally wealthier.
Because of the decision of a rogue band of corporate chiefs to place capital over country, the climate crisis will continue to worsen. Resource wars will multiply. Humanitarian disasters will skyrocket. Floods and fires will batter the economy. Our nation will be less safe thanks to the oil barons’ crying national security to pad their profits through projects like Willow.
There was a time when expanding oil usage was an inescapable reality of modern life. We no longer live in that world. Europe, facing the crucible of its first land war in 70 years, speaks to this sea change in geopolitics.
When a fossil fuel aggressor rattled his saber at Europe, the continent rushed to abandon fossil fuels. Joe Biden should have done the same.