The approval of a new oil drilling development in the US has set environmental groups, local communities and, more surprisingly, young TikTok users alight with outrage and fear for their future. Irrespective of its strangely eerie and incongruous name, ‘The Willow Project’ has been capturing the attention of many for its illustration of the complex interconnection between social media, environmentalism, and politics.
What is the Willow Project?
The Willow Project is a new major oil and gas drilling venture in Alaska initially proposed by ConocoPhillips, the largest Alaskan crude oil producer. The project will reportedly help boost domestic energy production and allow the country to be less reliant on foreign oil, whilst also generating between $8bn and $17bn in revenue and over 300 permanent jobs. However, it could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day and generate up to 278 million metric tons of CO2e over its 30-year lifespan in the process – the equivalent of adding around 2 million cars to US roads per year. For this reason, the project has been labelled a ‘carbon bomb’ and has been the subject of intense backlash, with over a million protest letters written to the White House and over 3 million signatures received on a Change.org petition.
The project has been widely condemned online whilst Alaskan Natives appear to be divided on the topic, with some arguing it will boost jobs and local revenue, and others worried about the threat it will pose to local wildlife, traditional hunting practices and air quality. The drilling site is situated in the National Petroleum Reserve located in the North Slope region of Alaska, the largest area of undisturbed public land in the US.
Should we be worried?
It’s unsurprising that the approval of a massive new oil drilling venture in a country that should be leading the charge on climate action has caused a stir online and otherwise. From a purely environmental perspective though, how serious is this?
The goal of the 2016 Paris Agreement was and is to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, or otherwise risk severe climate disruptions which would intensify worldwide hunger, conflict and drought. The International Energy Agency has previously stated that, if this is to be achieved, no new oil or gas drilling can proceed.
Upon the recommendation of the Bureau of Land Management, it has been agreed that the Willow Project will be scaled back from five sites to three, and half of its emissions offset by planting trees to capture the carbon. Supposedly this will still allow the US to achieve its target of reducing its net greenhouse gas emissions by 52% below 2005 levels, but to many this is still a step too far and the irreversible environmental consequences of this move remain a concern.
This also marks a big move towards energy independence for the US, something which both the US and the UK have pledged to pursue in light of the Russia-Ukraine war. Initially this was touted as an opportunity to pursue renewable and nuclear alternatives to fossil fuels, but the approval of Willow indicates otherwise. Biden’s decision to continue down the road of non-renewable energy is disconcerting to say the least, and although the UK may benefit from this oil source in the decades to come, it is becoming abundantly clear that both countries are not delivering on their promises to lead on climate change.
Social media activism: productive or performative?
Whilst a new oil drilling project amidst the current climate crisis is certainly cause for alarm, the sudden intensification of online activism surrounding the Willow Project has surprised even those in protest of the project. Hashtags #StopWillow and #StopTheWillowProject on TikTok have been viewed around 150 million times, and the main question surrounding this flurry of activity is ‘why?’.
Some have argued that specific fights, such as large fossil fuel projects like this one, rouse the public’s attention far more than sweeping policies or stark statistics. Others say it is a manifestation of the younger generations’ climate anxiety. Some have even suggested it to be the work of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the Willow Project is a move towards energy independence and domestic strength which some see as reason for the CCP to want to promote anti-Willow propaganda via censoring people’s feeds.
The reason, however, is somewhat irrelevant as long as this activism is having the desired effect. The project has been scaled back due to concerns about the greenhouse gas impact of Willow, but it’s unclear if this has anything to do with the online protests. It’s fairly self-evident that a purely online campaign will garner little real political engagement, and digital protestors were few and far between at a protest that happened outside the White House prior to Willow getting approved. Some have also noted the viral anti-Willow campaigns as accelerating the spread of misinformation and catastrophising Willow, thus feeding into what some have dubbed “climate doomersim”.
What does this mean for Biden?
Another reason for the outrage directed at Willow is Biden’s previous promises during his 2020 presidential campaign to approve no more oil drilling projects on US soil. Further contributing to the shock and confusion are the limits imposed on oil and gas drilling across 16 million acres of Alaska and the Arctic just one day prior to Willow’s approval. Climate campaigners and green Democrats originally backed him based on the premise that Biden would be leading on climate action, so a sizeable proportion of his voter base now feel misguided and betrayed.
Many are confused by Biden’s controversial decision to approve Willow, but the president is facing pressure from multiple angles, most notably from the demand to keep the price of gas down by increasing domestic fuel supplies. Whilst it is extremely disheartening to witness the approval of another oil drilling project, it is also a challenging time to be a world leader, with many faced with tough decisions amidst environmental, economic, and political crises. Regardless, this move will lose Biden and his administration some critical votes at the next election, and many are apprehensive of the impact of Willow from a political standpoint as well as environmental.