How Big of a Climate Betrayal Is the Willow Oil Project?

David Wallace-Wells
Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

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Mar. 16, 2023

On Monday, when President Biden approved ConocoPhillips’s $8 billion plan to extract 600 million barrels of oil from federal lands in Alaska, the announcement landed simultaneously with the thud of betrayal and the air of inevitability. On the campaign trail, Biden had promised “no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.” But for all the talk about the renewables boom and the green transition, and all the money pouring into them as well, there has been little concerted effort, in the United States at least, to really draw down our profligate use of the stuff that is actually poisoning the climate: fossil fuels.


The green transition is indeed rapidly underway — more rapidly than many advocates believed possible just a few years ago. But on its own, even infinite clean energy doesn’t change anything about emissions trajectories or global warming. For that, it has to replace the dirty kind. And as Mark Paul and Lina Moe write in a new report for the Climate and Community Project, renewable subsidies can get you only so far, no matter how generous they are; at some point, if you are serious about any of our stated climate goals, you have to move on to a program of drawdown. In their report, Paul and Moe call this a “supply side” approach to decarbonization. You may recognize the principle from the old activist slogan “Keep it in the ground.”


American emissions have been declining steadily since 2005, primarily because of natural gas replacing coal for electricity generation. But the decline has been relatively slow and pockmarked by concessions to the fossil fuel industry and climate hypocrisy. Last year, as U.S. climate envoy John Kerry lectured the nations of sub-Saharan Africa about the risks of fossil fuel development, the United States approved more oil and gas expansion than any other nation in the world, according to Oil Change International. It is already the world’s largest producer of oil and gas and the third-largest consumer of coal. This year, it will also become the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

Those gas exports are expected to more than double by the end of the decade. And farther out, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that oil and gas will remain the country’s biggest sources of energy at midcentury, when the country has formally pledged to be “net zero,” with oil production continuing to grow over that time. In its first two years, the Biden administration approved more oil and gas permits than the Trump administration had at that point. And while the Inflation Reduction Act has been rightly hailed as the most significant piece of climate legislation the country has ever produced, even some optimistic analyses suggest it might not reduce domestic oil production by even a single barrel over the next decade.

At the global level, there are some more encouraging signs. The European Union, for instance, has agreed to push for a fossil fuel phaseout at the next U.N. climate conference in Dubai in December — a promise that has some holes and isn’t quite as absolute as, say, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. But it still comes much closer to that high standard of medium-term abolition than might’ve seemed possible just a few years ago. More promising, there is evidence of renewables beginning to outcompete fossil fuels as well. According to a recent analysis of an International Energy Agency report by Carbon Brief, renewables will become the world’s top source of electricity within three years. By 2025, the I.E.A. suggests, global emissions should reach a peak — and then either plateau or decline

This sounds like good news, and indeed it is — much better to not continue doing more damage to the future of the planet’s climate each year than we did in every previous year in human history. But that is all that is meant by a peak, and its attainment only implies that perhaps next year we will manage to do only as much damage to the future of the planet’s climate as we had the previous, record year, which is to say, more damage than we managed in every previous year in human history.


A sustained plateau would be an even more trivial accomplishment than a peak. From there, all we have to do to stabilize the planet’s temperature is to get from 40 billion metric tons of carbon emissions every year all the way down to zero. “To attempt to fit this drama into some familiar experience of ‘energy transition’ is to dramatically underestimate the challenge ahead,” the economic historian Adam Tooze wrote recently in his newsletter. “As a technical, industrial, political and societal challenge, it is gigantic and unprecedented.”


Different warming goals imply different timelines for that undertaking: To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the ambitious target established under the Paris agreement, would require getting to zero by 2050, according to most estimates; limiting to 2 degrees would require doing it by 2070 or 2080. Each of these timelines involves considerable uncertainty, but they also tell a relatively clear story. And what those stories imply for fossil fuel development and production is nearly as straightforward. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees would require leaving almost 40 percent of already developed fossil fuel infrastructure untapped. 


Limiting warming to 2 degrees would require stranding fewer of those assets but would probably still mean keeping a significant share of known oil reserves in the ground. In fact, the International Energy Agency declared in 2021 that the building of new fossil infrastructure had to stop then. In a report last year, the Tyndall Center in Britain found that to reach ambitious climate goals equitably, fossil fuel production in the world’s rich countries had to be phased out entirely by 2034. The Willow project is expected to be producing oil for decades thereafter.

How big of a carbon bomb is Willow? The honest answer is non-zero but not catastrophically large, on its own. If the project goes forward and produces oil as predicted, it is expected to generate 9.2 million additional metric tons of CO₂ each year — about the equivalent of two new coal plants added to our fleet or two million gasoline cars added to the road. This is bad — any amount of additional carbon promises to push the world even farther outside the envelope of temperatures that have enclosed, and indeed helped cultivate, the full history of human civilization to this point. Rebecca Solnit called Willow “an act of terrorism against the climate,” and Heather Souvaine Horn wrote that the approval “underlines that the climate phase of the Biden administration is over.” And yet nine million metric tons is only about two-tenths of 1 percent of current American emissions.

But this same logic could be used to justify any particular fossil fuel project. That is the nature of a problem that suffuses nearly every aspect of industrial and postindustrial civilization: The scale of the challenge seems simultaneously to argue for urgency and to counsel a kind of indifference. Even China’s conspicuous recent burst of coal-power construction doesn’t, itself, significantly change the global emissions trajectory (particularly since most of those plants are running far below capacity). But as Hannah Ritchie has recently emphasized, this is no excuse for inaction, given that those countries whose “negligible emissions” each amount to less than 2 percent of the problem altogether account for more than a third of it. You have to draw the line somewhere, and the Biden administration keeps doing so only to cross it.


In an essay this week in The Hill, William S. Becker invoked“climate pragmatism” as an argument for drawing a harder line on Willow and other fossil fuel development, and compared the recent American pattern of forward progress mixed with backsliding to an addiction, with the admonition that implies: A drink isn’t a bender, but at some point, if you’re hoping to put alcoholism behind you, you’ve got to actually stop drinking. Or at the very least, stop ordering wine delivered to your door.


For decades, economists considering this problem would often propose a carbon tax as a solution — a “market based” approach to the environmental “externality.” Then the Green New Deal came along, and though it was derided in some corners as a heavy-handed intervention, it helped shepherd forward an almost painless-seeming new green “industrial policy” (the I.R.A.) built purely around incentives and rewards. This “soft touch” approach is, for obvious reasons, politically appealing. The risk is that left to its own devices, the market won’t actually retire fossil fuels — at least not fast enough.

That’s because, unfortunately, fossil fuels remain something of a bonanza business. This week, the world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, posted a record $161 billion profit for 2022 — more than combined profits of some of the world’s other major oil companies, many of whom also set records last year. These are not businesses we can expect to go quietly into the night, at least anytime soon. And still, the U.S. government is each year sending more than $10 billion in subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Biden says he wants to scrap those. We’ll see.

[Top image: Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images]