3 reasons the Willow Arctic oil drilling project was approved – it's the latest battle in a long fight over Alaska's North Slope

Scott L. Montgomery, Lecturer, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

For more than six decades, Alaska’s North Slope has been a focus of intense controversy over oil development and wilderness protection, with no end in sight. Willow field, a 600-million-barrel, US$8 billion oil project recently approved by the Biden administration – to the outrage of environmental and climate activists – is the latest chapter in that long saga.

To understand why President Joe Biden allowed the project, despite vowing “no more drilling on federal lands, period” during his campaign for president, some historical background is necessary. So is a closer look at the ways domestic and international fears are complicating any decision for or against future oil development right now on the North Slope.

The Willow project lies within a vast, 23 million-acre area known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. This was one of four such reserves set aside in the early 1900s to guarantee a supply of oil for the U.S. military. Though no production existed at the time in NPR-A, geologic information and surface seeps of oil suggested large resources across the North Slope.

Proof came with the 1968 discovery of the supergiant Prudhoe Bay field, which began producing oil in 1977. Exploratory programs in the NPR-A, however, found only small oil accumulations worthy of local uses.

Then, in the 2000s, new geologic understanding and advanced exploration technology led companies to lease portions of the reserve, and they soon made large fossil fuel discoveries. Because NPR-A is federal land, government approval is required for any development. To date, most have been approved. Willow is the latest.

Opposition to North Slope drilling from conservationists, environmental organizations and some Native communities, mainly in support of wilderness preservation, has been fierce since the opening of Prudhoe Bay and the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. In the wake of 1970s oil crises, opponents failed to stop development.


During the next four decades, controversy shifted east to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Republican presidents and congressional leaders repeatedly attempted to open the refuge to drilling but were consistently stifled – until 2017. That year, the Trump administration opened it to leasing. Ironically, no companies were interested. Oil prices had fallen, risk was high and the reputational cost was large.

To the west of the refuge, however, a series of new discoveries in NPR-A and adjacent state lands were drawing attention as a major new oil play with multibillion-barrel potential. Oil prices had risen, and though they fell again in 2020, they have been mostly above $70 per barrel – high enough to encourage significant new development.

Opposition to the new Willow project has been driven by concerns about the effects of drilling on wildlife and of increasing fossil fuel use on the climate. Willow’s oil is estimated to be capable of releasing 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide if refined into fuels and consumed.

In particular, opponents have focused on a planned pipeline that will extend the existing infrastructure further westward, deeper into NPR-A, and likely encourage further exploratory drilling.


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