Stanford University
Energy production and pipelines on Alaska's North Slope in winter at night

Q&A: Willow oil project and Arctic drilling limits

Stanford experts explain why the recently approved Willow oil drilling project in Alaska has sparked controversy, discuss the significance of new limits on oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, and describe the complicated nature of energy transformation in the fastest-warming place on Earth.

BY Josie Garthwaite
ClockMarch 16, 2023

The Biden administration this week approved a long-contested oil drilling project in northwest Alaska known as the Willow project, while also moving to limit oil drilling in millions of acres in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean. Here, biological oceanographer Kevin Arrigo, oceanographer Rob Dunbar, and environmental law expert Deborah Sivas discuss the areas affected by the decisions, the Willow project’s journey through the courts, and what happens next. 

Arrigo is the Donald and Donald M. Steel Professor of Earth Sciences at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Dunbar is the W.M. Keck Professor and a professor of oceans at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Dunbar and Arrigo are both also professors of Earth system science at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Sivas is the Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law at Stanford Law School and a professor in the social sciences division of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Arrigo, Dunbar, and Sivas are also senior fellows in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

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How is coastal drilling regulated in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR–A), where the Willow project is located? 

Deborah Sivas
Deborah Sivas (Image credit: Courtesy of Stanford Law School)

Sivas: The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is a 23-million-acre area on the North Slope in northwest Alaska. It was created and opened for potential leasing and drilling by federal law in the 1970s. 

The Department of the Interior, through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), manages leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve pursuant to a set of drilling, maintenance, and operation regulations. These regulations were adopted decades ago and many would argue that they are not sufficiently protective of the environment. For instance, there have been significant oil spills in Prudhoe Bay, which is between NPR-A and the 19-million-acre Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. And, frankly, the Interior Department does not have a very good track record of enforcing the oil and gas drilling regulations.

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Can you talk about the Willow project’s journey through the courts and why it has been so controversial?

Sivas: ConocoPhillips started buying leases here back in 1999. After exploration showed potential for oil recovery, the company proposed what is collectively known as the Willow oil project, consisting of five well pads holding a total of 250 wells. The Trump administration approved the project in 2020, and environmental and indigenous groups challenged that decision in federal district court in Alaska. In 2021, the court vacated the approval on the grounds that the environmental impact statement for the project was legally inadequate. 

BLM went back to the drawing board and prepared a supplemental environmental impact statement. Although the Biden administration originally put a moratorium on oil drilling on public lands, BLM ultimately approved the Willow project. The decision reduces the amount of the proposed drilling program – approving only three drilling sites instead of five – and simultaneously puts drilling in the Beaufort Sea off limits. ConocoPhillips will also relinquish 68,000 acres of other leased land in the NPR-A in the most environmentally sensitive part of the reserve.

Nevertheless, if built, the project will be a very significant new fossil fuel development, ultimately producing up to 180,000 barrels per day and generating more than 280 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years. It will also involve construction of a processing facility, roads, an airstrip, pipelines, and a gravel mine – all in or near habitat for caribou, grizzly bears, and many kinds of bird species.

Dunbar: This project has been highly controversial for some time. Many elected Democrats in Alaska were in favor of it, most Alaskans were in favor of it. Some Iñupiat communities are opposed, but the regional native corporation is in favor. The development’s going to bring in new infrastructure – pipelines, roads, gravel pads – near small villages that are dependent upon caribou and native hunting. But it will also bring economic benefits to an area that’s relatively poor. Alaska has had a number of years where the state was almost bankrupt because revenues from oil and gas have declined. That’s a challenge: How do you support or encourage a transition away from oil and gas while also ensuring economic livelihood? 

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We haven’t adapted as an economic political system to move swiftly to mitigate climate change. We should be investing in renewable energy more than in fossil fuel energy production.

Rob Dunbar, you’ve described this as a devil’s bargain. Why?

Dunbar: The bargain with the devil is that, although Biden announced that there would be “no more drilling on federal lands, period,” they’ve now relaxed that pledge for Alaska, where there’s huge political pressure to develop economically. The bargain is long term protection against offshore drilling – the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Seas are completely protected now – and also less coastal drilling in Alaska. 

This restriction on further drilling offshore is super important. The Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill happened in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, in very benign coastal ocean waters, close to large ports with many ships and technologies that could respond swiftly. Nevertheless, enormous damage was done throughout the Gulf. What if it happened in the Arctic where there are almost no ships that are capable of getting through to some of these sites in the middle of winter? 

This is permafrost terrain – an area where, because of amplified warming in the Arctic, it’s warming about twice the rate of the rest of the planet. The permafrost is melting. Anytime there’s a large-scale change in the shape of the land surface due to permafrost loss and there’s a pipeline running over it, there’s a new possibility for damage to infrastructure that can lead to an oil spill. 

The devil is the climate change issue. It’s very clear to me and many others, certainly to the IPCC and the United Nations, that if we want to have a chance at holding future climate change to levels that aren’t dangerous, then we really can’t be expanding our portfolio of extractive fossil fuel enterprises. And that includes opening up leases in the Arctic.

This announcement reflects a larger problem: We haven’t adapted as an economic political system to move swiftly to mitigate climate change. We should be investing in renewable energy more than in fossil fuel energy production.

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How does industrial activity like oil drilling interact with other stressors in the Arctic Ocean?

Arrigo: Activities related to oil exploration and drilling will add to the stresses already experienced by plants and animals in this region due to increased ocean temperatures, loss of sea ice, and ocean acidification, which will negatively affect shellfish and many other small animals on which walrus, seals, fish, and whales feed. We know that the aggregate effect from multiple stressors is greater than that exerted by each individual stressor, so relieving some of that stress by banning oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea can only be beneficial for the local environment.

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We know that the aggregate effect from multiple stressors is greater than that exerted by each individual stressor, so relieving some of that stress by banning oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea can only be beneficial for the local environment.

An outright rejection of the Willow project reportedly could have been overturned in court. Why would that happen?

Sivas: ConocoPhillips could challenge a denial of the project on the grounds that the company has a vested right to develop its leases. This is a tricky area, legally. Although BLM has the authority to put conditions on a project to limit its scope to protect environmental and cultural resources, leaseholders routinely argue that once they purchase the lease, and especially where they have spent money on exploration, they have a right to develop and must be compensated for a constitutional “taking” if the agency denies the project in its entirety.

In fact, applications for development of an energy lease are often approved with conditions or on a reduced scale, where the terms of approval are negotiated by the parties in the shadow of the legal risks on both sides. I suspect something like that went on here.

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What legal avenues might opponents of the project pursue now?

Sivas: One possible issue is whether the environmental impact statement accurately assessed the consequences of leaving the oil in the ground – what is essentially the “no action” alternative. Historically, agencies have taken the position that, if a specific oil development project does not go forward, global market demand will just ensure that the oil comes from elsewhere, meaning that the same amount of oil would be produced and burned whether or not the project is approved. But with our rapid energy transition, I’m not sure those economic assumptions still apply.

Another interesting issue here is that, even if the challengers are ultimately unsuccessful, litigation can slow project implementation, which, even under the best of circumstances, will take half a dozen years. So it could be a decade before oil is flowing. And in that time, the energy market will likely continue to change as a result of an increasingly rapid transition. So, ten years from now, the economics of the project may be quite different.

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Arrigo and Dunbar are also members of Bio-X. Dunbar is also a faculty affiliate at the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI).

Media Contacts

Kevin Arrigo

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Rob Dunbar

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Deborah Sivas

Stanford Law School

Josie Garthwaite

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

(650) 497-0947;

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