The Alaska Oil Project Will Be Obsolete Before It’s Finished
The world might not have enough renewable energy to power everything by 2029, but we’ll have more than enough to keep the lights on without additional drilling.
If the world turned off the tap of fossil fuels tomorrow, all hell would break loose. Something like 30 percent of global electricity and 9 percent of transport would still be running; billions of people would be stuck at home in the dark.
That’s why, even though world leaders now talk constantly about transitioning away from fossil fuels, they also fret about ensuring a supply of oil and gas for next week, next month, and next year. But right now they are also green-lighting new fossil-fuel projects that won’t start producing energy for years and won’t wind down operations for decades.
It is in this context that the Biden administration has just approved a highly contested proposal to drill for oil on federal land in northern Alaska. The project, called Willow, would damage the complex local tundra ecosystem and, according to an older government estimate, release the same amount of greenhouse gases annually as half a million homes. The administration hopes to soften the blow with a set of restrictions on further drilling on- and offshore in the area, as if to say that Willow will be the last major extraction project in the Alaskan Arctic—one last big score, to propel us across the energy gap.
But the oil from the three drill sites approved today won’t begin to flow for six years. It won’t address any of our next-week, next-month, or next-year supply concerns. In fact, Willow probably won’t do much of anything. By the time it’s finished, the gap may already be largely bridged. The world might not have enough renewable energy to power everything by 2029, but we’ll have more than enough to keep the lights on without additional drilling.
The Willow site is in a chunk of federally owned land called the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, to the west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the state’s North Slope. ConocoPhillips, which has a long-term lease on the land, originally sought to build five drill sites. Even after a lawsuit brought by environmental groups pushed the administration to withhold approval from two of them, the federal government’s environmental-impact statement for the project calculates that Willow would produce some 576 million barrels over approximately 30 years.
Activists say those barrels will come with increases in both greenhouse-gas emissions and local environmental destruction. The law firm Earthjustice, which has sued the government over elements of the plan, calls Willow a “carbon bomb.” The Willow Project has also been the target of a vigorous TikTok activism campaign. A letter from community leaders closest to the Willow site says that the proposed project threatens “our culture, traditions, and our ability to keep going out on the land and the waters.” Climate change is already warming the Arctic nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet, and threatening to melt the permafrost of the North Slope; in fact, ConocoPhillips plans to deploy cooling devices called “thermosyphons” to keep the permafrost frozen under its drill pads. (Ryan Lance, the company’s chairman, said in a statement, “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security.”)
But in a state that has long depended on oil and gas revenues, Willow has also received vigorous support. Leaders for Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, a coalition of North Slope Inupiat leaders, said in a statement that the project means “generational economic stability” for their region. ConocoPhillips estimates the project would produce “2,500 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs,” and generate $8 billion to $17 billion in government revenue. Alaska’s two Republican senators and one Democratic congresswoman co-wrote an op-ed in support of the Willow project. “We all recognize the need for cleaner energy, but there is a major gap between our capability to generate it and our daily needs,” the bipartisan trio wrote.
It is true that there aren’t yet enough solar panels, wind turbines, or electric vehicles to quit fossil fuels cold turkey, and that the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent shock waves through the global energy economy that are still affecting supplies and prices. But assuming that this “state of emergency” will persist is a mistake, says Jennifer Layke, the global energy director of the World Resources Institute. Besides, the United States is now a net exporter of oil. In 2022, we exported nearly 6 million barrels a day, a new record. The decision to proceed with Willow, Layke told me, is an economic one; “it’s not about the renewables transition.” If it were, she said, we would probably not be drilling in the Arctic right now.
Given how quickly renewables are ramping up, experts say the world could meet its energy needs without drilling any new wells. In May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organization that tracks and analyzes the global energy system, produced a “roadmap” to achieve the goal of “net-zero emissions in 2050.” The report recommends an immediate end to new oil and gas fields, plus a ban on new coal mines and mine extensions—along with massive investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency and a tax on carbon. In this future, total energy supply drops 7 percent by the end of the decade, relative to 2020, as the mix of energy sources reshuffles, but increased energy efficiency makes up the difference.
The IEA pathway is a bit utopian, because it assumes that every nation tries its best to decarbonize all at once when the reality is likely to be far messier. Which brings us to another argument that Alaska’s political leaders have made in favor of approving Willow: “We need oil, and compared to the other countries we can source it from, we believe Willow is by far the most environmentally responsible choice,” they wrote in their op-ed. Indeed, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ran a modeling exercise to estimate the emissions associated with not drilling at the Willow site, it concluded that only 11 percent of total energy produced by the project would never be used in a world without Willow and that less than 10 percent of the energy not produced at Willow would be instead produced by natural gas or renewable sources. Most of the rest would be replaced by oil from abroad.
However, the BLM model is based on the way the energy market has looked in the past, not the way it is shaping up to look in a greener future. The report admits as much, saying, “Energy substitutes for Willow may look significantly different in a low carbon future.” Whether other oil-producing countries might also, over the course of the next several decades, eventually decide to limit or end their fossil-fuel production is not taken into account. Nor does the model include the effect of the United States keeping or losing the moral high ground it might need to help broker a substantive global cooperative agreement to enact such limits.
Even the BLM’s own model, which somewhat absurdly assumes that “regulations and consumption patterns will not change over the long term,” tells us that approving Willow will increase total global energy use and displace at least some energy that could have been generated cleanly—all to produce oil that experts say we simply do not need to bridge any “gap” between where we stand and the greener future ahead. Every day, the gap gets narrower. Moves like the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act are only compressing it further, as monetary incentives for building renewable energy infrastructure and buying electric cars work their magic on the collective behavior of Americans.
The IEA forecasts that the world will add as much renewable power in the next five years as it did in the past 20. If renewables keep growing at their current rate, it projects, renewable energy would account for 38 percent of global electricity by 2027—two years before Willow oil would finally start flowing. Add in some serious demand reduction through energy-efficiency improvements and electrification of transport, and our remaining fossil-fuel needs will easily be met by existing drill sites. Forget about not needing Willow at the end of its 30-year life span. It’ll be obsolete before the ribbon is cut.