Al Gore has warned it would be “recklessly irresponsible” for Joe Biden’s administration to allow an enormous, controversial oil drilling project to proceed in Alaska, amid growing alarm among Democrats and campaigners that the Willow development will fatally undermine the US’s effort to confront the climate crisis.
The vast, $6bn ConocoPhillips oil project, to be situated on the tundra of Alaska’s northern Arctic coast, is awaiting approval from the federal government that could arrive as soon as Friday. Gore, the former US vice-president and leading climate advocate, told the Guardian that the planned drilling would threaten local communities as well as the task of curbing dangerous global heating.
“The proposed expansion of oil and gas drilling in Alaska is recklessly irresponsible,” Gore said. “The pollution it would generate will not only put Alaska native and other local communities at risk, it is incompatible with the ambition we need to achieve a net zero future.
“We don’t need to prop up the fossil fuel industry with new, multi-year projects that are a recipe for climate chaos,” Gore added. “Instead, we must end the expansion of oil, gas and coal and embrace the abundant climate solutions at our fingertips.”
The Willow project has become a leading target for climate campaigners due to the huge volume of planet-heating emissions it could unleash. The drilling operation would extract up to 180,0000 barrels of oil a day, about 1.6% of total US oil production from one site alone. In a grim irony, ConocoPhillips has said it may have to re-freeze ground that is rapidly thawing as the Arctic heats up in order to stabilize the drilling equipment.
This drilling would result in 278m tons of greenhouse gases over a 30-year lifespan of the development, according to the administration’s own estimates, the equivalent of adding 2m gasoline-consuming cars onto the road or running more than 70 coal-fired power plants for a year. The pollution produced would comfortably wipe out the emissions saved from all renewable energy projects on US public lands by 2030.
The Department of the Interior has said it has “substantial concerns” about the Willow project’s impact upon the climate and the subsistence lifestyle of native Alaskan communities but has completed an environmental review of the development that it said would improve it, such as drilling at three sites rather than five and reducing the number of roads and other infrastructure that would be built in the wilderness.
The prospect of the administration approving a full or abridged version of the project has sparked alarm among local communities, climate campaigners and Biden’s Democratic allies.
The International Energy Agency has said no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built if the world is to avoid disastrous climate change and two dozen Democrats in Congress have written to Biden warning that Willow poses “a significant threat to US progress on climate issues”. The lawmakers called upon the president to “stop this ill-conceived and misguided project”.
A wave of opposition to the Willow project has hit the White House in recent weeks, including in-person rallies in Washington DC and a viral #StopWillow campaign on social media. An online petition calling for the project to be halted has garnered more than 3m signatures. Critics have pointed out the project fatally undermines Biden’s promise to deal with the climate crisis, which he has called an “existential threat” to humanity.
“President Biden continues to address climate change during high-profile speeches and events but his actions are contradictory,” said Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, an Indigenous group that has warned the project would endanger the subsistence lifestyle of native communities that rely upon the migration of a caribou herd, as well as other established patterns in the environment, to live in their Arctic surrounds.
Biden has come under pressure from proponents of the project, too, with Alaskan lawmakers and some native groups arguing Willow would create much-needed jobs and investment for the region. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska, has called the size of the project “minuscule” and that it has been “meticulously planned” to avoid harm to the environment.
The battle over Willow is likely to end up in the courts, with environmental advocates vowing to keep fighting any iteration of the project. “I think that litigation is very likely,” said Jeremy Lieb, a senior attorney for Earthjustice. “We and our clients don’t see any acceptable version of this project.”
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