Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
When President Joe Biden promised no new drilling, it’s too bad we couldn’t look behind the podium and see he was crossing his fingers.
Marylanders flocked to the polls for Biden in 2020, only for him to repeatedly break that campaign promise. This week, Biden has faced heated backlash for approving the country’s largest oil drilling project in the North Slope of Alaska, Project Willow.
To protect Alaska’s environment and at-risk Indigenous communities, Biden’s Department of Interior needs to revoke the permits for the project’s development. To substitute the lost benefits to the community, the federal government should instead invest in clean energy projects in Alaska.
Concern comes from projected harm to the environment as the oil that will be produced over the 30 years of development is estimated to create greenhouse gases the equivalent of two million gas powered cars. That amount of pollution more than eliminates all emissions saved by the U.S.’ renewable energy projects.
The environmental effects would be especially harmful to those who live in Alaska. With the Arctic warming at four times the global rate, many have already noticed ice thinning and unusual changes in wildlife due to warmer temperatures.
Indigenous Alaskans have also pushed back on the development. In particular, members of the Nuiqsut community, which is closest to the proposed drilling site, have stood in strong opposition. They have argued the development would endanger wildlife and consequently threaten Nuiqsut food security as well as threaten cultural traditions of fishing and hunting.
In a letter to the Department of Interior, Nuiqsut leaders stated the Bureau of Land Management hasn’t acknowledged their concerns, despite federal requirements. In the same letter, Nuiqsut leaders argue the economic benefits of the project and the proposed financial compensation don’t equal the expected damage to their culture, environment and health — issues current oil projects already affect.
The arguments for the development come from state lawmakers and other Indigenous groups, such as Iñupiat advocacy groups, who are in favor of the jobs and revenue the project would bring to the area. However, these benefits are often over-inflated and don’t consider loop-holes and tax write-offs that might result in Alaska’s state revenue declining for the first decade of drilling.
Job estimates have been a big selling point for the Willow Project, but reality might be less enticing. ConocoPhillips, the company in charge of the WIllow Project itself, claims the construction is estimated to only create about 2,000 jobs, with merely 300 permanent ones. This is relatively large for the North Slope’s small population of about 11,000 individuals, but ConocoPhillips has stated most jobs will be filled by non-locals. This job count is also likely to be overstated, as oil companies have done in the past.
While an increase in jobs to an economy, local or not, is still beneficial, these benefits could come more efficiently and permanently from investments in clean energy.
A 2022 Alaska Climate Alliance report estimates the transition to 100 percent renewable energy in Alaska by 2050 would generate a net increase of more than 67,000 long-term jobs. This shows that although a large portion of Alaska’s economy is currently in fossil fuel energy, a clean energy transition has a lot of potential to achieve economic security.
Some Indigenous Alaskans have spoken of how the Willow Project would give them economic independence from the state and federal government, which they have traditionally relied on. While Indigenous Alaskans might gain in the short term, it’s impossible to gauge the actual net value of new drilling projects when we also consider the potential losses.
This drilling project is also expected to impact the habitats of local wildlife, but renewable projects can be more thoughtfully designed around them. In collaboration with the Indigenous Igiugig community, the Ocean Renewable Power Company was able to incorporate a hydroelectric system to power their community without impacting the fish population the community relies on.
Alaskans do need more jobs, economic independence and development, but not at the cost of everything else important to them. Development in clean energy could produce all of these benefits with much less harm than oil. Renewable resources are necessary for the sustainability of both Alaska’s environment and economy.
Biden’s campaign promises on drilling are still necessary, so his administration must suspend the Willow Project’s lease and invest in Alaska’s clean energy instead to protect everything Alaskans hold dear.
Kyra Freeman is a sophomore philosophy, politics and economics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.