Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Any day now, the Biden administration is expected to decide whether to approve a controversial oil drilling project that’s become a galvanizing issue for Gen Zers passionate about climate change. They’ve taken their message to platforms like TikTok, amassing top views on videos outlining the issue. They’ve also sent millions of letters to the White House.
Supporters of the so-called Willow Project say drilling in Arctic Alaska will lower oil prices and boost national security. But its opponents say it comes with unacceptable environmental consequences and disincentivize a transition to cleaner fuels.
That leaves the Biden administration stuck in the crosscurrents of its own conflicting priorities — and Gen Zers are prepared to read the decision as a clarification on where the country’s political power lies.
Here’s an overview of where things stand.
First things first: What is the Willow Project?
The Willow Master Development Plan is a $6 billion proposal from ConocoPhillips to drill oil inside the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
The oil giant says the project could deliver up to $17 billion in revenue for federal, state and local governments, creating over 2,800 jobs.
Willow would also yield an estimated 600 million barrels of oil, a volume nearly 1.5 times the current supply in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The Biden administration says boosting oil production could help keep consumer energy prices down — a statement that economists caveat, saying it’d take years to actually see prices drop.
Willow’s proposed development would unfold on the North Slope of the petroleum reserve, a 23 million-acre region that represents the largest undisturbed public land in the U.S.
The Bureau of Land Management describes the proposed site as “critical” to local wildlife, supporting “thousands of migratory birds” and serving as “a primary calving area” for local caribou. Beyond the region, the BLM says the project would release 9.2 million metric tons of annual carbon pollution, which contributes to human-caused climate change. That’s equivalent to the emissions of roughly 2 million gas-powered cars.
The decision comes at a key crossroads for the Biden administration
Pete Marovich/Getty Images
The Trump administration initially approved the Willow Project in late 2020, but a federal judge vacated development permits, saying initial federal reviews failed to include measures to mitigate the impact on polar bears.
On Feb. 1, the BLM published a new environmental impact analysis of the plan, proposing one fewer drilling sites and less surface infrastructure such as roads and pipelines. ConocoPhillips called it “a practical way forward”.
Ultimately, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland formally gets the final say. She could approve the original ConocoPhillips plan, greenlight the BLM’s revised plan, halt the project altogether or take any action in between.
The Interior Department initially said that the revised plan still left substantial concerns about Willow’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
But halting Willow would put the Biden administration in a tricky political position. The president made a campaign promise not to start any new drilling on federal lands — but, in office, he’s prioritized lowering energy prices amid uncertainty in the global oil market.
But more than four days have passed since the end of a formal 30-day review period on the BLM plan, the date many observers had been expecting a decision.
On Friday morning, the Interior Department told NPR it had no update on the timing of a decision. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed during Friday’s press briefing that the president had met with the Alaskan congressional delegation about the project last week but that the decision would ultimately come from the Interior Department.
Who supports the project?
As the wait drags on, the debate only grows louder.
On Wednesday, Alaska’s congressional delegation urged swift approval for the BLM plan, citing, above all else, the need for economic relief.
“We all recognize the need for cleaner energy, but there is a major gap between our capability to generate it and our daily needs,” wrote the two Republican Senators and one Democratic representative in an opinion piece for CNN.
“Even those who practice a subsistence lifestyle in Alaska — living primarily off the land and water — rely on boats, snowmachines and ATVs, and those all need fuel. In rural parts of our state, gasoline prices have been as high as $18 a gallon.”
Native Alaskan leaders themselves are split on whether the project will be a positive impact to the community. Leaders for Voice of the Arctic, a coalition of Inupiat North Slope leaders, says yes: The estimated $1 billion in taxes alone would fund critical education, police and firefighting improvements.
But leaders of the City of Nuiqsut and Native Village of Nuiqsut, the residential areas sitting closest to the proposed development site, said in their own scathing letter that their input hadn’t been heard.
“It seems that despite its nod to traditional ecological knowledge, BLM does not consider relevant the extensive knowledge and expertise we have gained over millennia, living in a way that is so deeply connected to our environment,” they wrote directly to Haaland.
And who’s behind the #StopWillow campaign?
Opposition to the project has spread so far and fast on social media. TikTokkers say the decentralized nature of the issue is well suited to the platform: It’s popular because there’s no unified message or group dominating the conversation.
“This is an economic issue, an environmental issue and a social issue,” explained Alex Haraus, a 25-year-old environmentalist whose videos on the Willow Project have been viewed millions of times.
“A lot of times in the past, we’ve seen groups take a stance on one thing and say that’s why everyone should care. But in this case, we’ve really just said, ‘here are all of the reasons why you should care. Pick whatever you’re passionate about and talk about it in your own way,'” Haraus said.
The formula worked. Hashtags like #willowproject, #stopwillow and #stopthewillowproject have appeared in TikTok’s daily top 10 lists, beating out hot celebrity feuds and universal trends like #springbreak. Posts tagged with #willowproject have attracted over 88 million U.S. views in the last month alone.
As of Friday, a change.org petition calling for an end to the project had amassed more than 3.1 million signatures, and a letter-writing form hosted by the advocacy group Protect the Arctic has tracked over 1.1 million unique letters to the White House.
What will the decision say about Biden’s political priorities?
Elise Joshi, a 20-year-old climate activist who’s been posting environmental content for the last two years, says she hasn’t seen this much interest in a climate issue “in a long time, maybe ever.”
Joshi says the 30-day review window for the project lent an omnipresent, slow-moving emergency (climate change) a tangible deadline. But just as urgent, Joshi says, is the feeling that the Biden administration could betray the very people who put the president in power.
“I hope the administration sees the same people who we worked with on climate legislation are rallying against [Project Willow],” she said, adding that she was among the activists invited to the White House signing of the Inflation Reduction Act.
“This isn’t the Trump administration. This is someone we voted for,” she added.
Neither Joshi nor Haraus sees the decision on the Willow Project as the end to Gen Zers’ interest in stopping oil drilling. But if successful, #StopWillow could serve as a key argument for how digital attention is remaking the landscape of political power.
“If this doesn’t represent an issue that’s resonating with general Americans, then I don’t know what does,” Haraus said.