What is the Willow Project? A Ticking “Carbon Bomb”

The Biden administration announced in March 2023 that it had approved a scaled-down version of the ConocoPhillips Willow Project.

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April 19, 2024 update: The Biden administration has finalized a rule which protects 13 million acres.

March 2023 update: In March 2023, the Biden administration announced that it has approved a version of the ConocoPhillips Willow Project that includes three oil wells rather than the proposed five.

The project will also involve roads, gravel pits and an airstrip and is projected to produce 576 million barrels of oil, the burning of which could emit 239,040,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of the annual emissions of more than 60 coal-fired power plants.

There is an opportunity to prevent future Willow Projects and to protect a significant amount of sensitive and critical wildlife habitat.

The Biden administration plans to increase protections for designated special areas of the Western Arctic reserve.

If this plan is finalized, 10.6 million acres would be off-limits to oil and gas drilling with opportunities for more protections in the future.

The finalized plan is expected to be announced in Spring of 2024.

Original article (March 2023)

The Western Arctic is edging closer to the brink of catastrophe as a final decision for ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project nears. The Willow Project is the single largest oil extraction project ever proposed on federal lands. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland could authorize this “carbon bomb” as early as March 6. 

The rising temperatures associated with climate change have made fossil fuel extraction in the arctic more difficult and costly due to melting permafrost. So, ConocoPhillips plans to refreeze the tundra – using “chillers” – and then proceed to drill it for oil. The Willow Project would extract 500 million barrels of petroleum and release annual emissions equivalent of 76 new coal fired power plants operating in a single year. The repercussions of these emissions are obvious: the Willow Project would be adding fuel to a global climate system that is already on fire. 

If approved, the Willow project will harm the fragile Arctic ecosystem by fragmenting habitats. The project requires new infrastructure like bridges and gravel roads. The construction and transportation involved in the creation of the infrastructure necessary for the oil project will harm wildlife well before any oil has been extracted.

The pollutants the Willow project emits are a threat to public health and safety. From methane that leaks from the production equipment to the trucks that transport materials to oil wells, the Willow Project’s pollutants can cause serious cardiovascular, kidney, and chronic respiratory problems. The village of Nuiqsut has seen respiratory illnesses increase almost 20% with an increasing number of oil wells constructed. Children are getting seriously ill with oil wells that sit right behind their schools.

In addition, many of the people living in the area rely on subsistence hunting of migratory caribou. Wildlife that once ran free in the region will disappear with rising temperatures and changing landscapes. According to Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Alaskan village Nuiqsut, “the animals [of Alaska’s North Slope’ are no longer in areas where [one’s] grandfather taught [one’s] husband to hunt and where he taught his son [to hunt].” The project would leave deep scars on the communities and fundamentally alter their traditional way of life.  

Secretary Haaland must not approve the Willow Project.


Ellen Montgomery

Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America

Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.

Jasmine Sinchai

Environment America Intern

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