President Biden, We Can’t Solve Climate Change Without Protecting the Western Arctic

A unique wildlife habitat on public lands is at risk being sacrificed to the oil and gas industry

In recent weeks, those working tirelessly to defend Alaska’s vast wilderness have had reason to send a mix of thank-you notes and dissenting petitions to President Joe Biden.

Ancient trees that have stood for centuries in the Tongass National Forest — but were very nearly felled by chainsaw blades — could soon be protected again from logging, thanks to a July 15 announcement by the U.S. Forest Service that it intends to preserve the Tongass’ old-growth forests and undo a Trump-era rollback that made it easier to auction them off to the timber industry’s highest bidder.

This reversal was a definitive win for the climate, as Southeast Alaska’s misty, carbon-absorbing forestlands are critical in the long haul against climate chaos. Yet much farther to the north, in a vast Alaska reserve, nature is losing the battle against the oil industry on President Biden’s watch.

Bordered by the Beaufort Sea, the Western Arctic — also known as the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska — is a remote 23 million-acre territory traversed by polar bears, musk oxen, migrating caribou and other unique wildlife. It contains the Teshekpuk Lake wetlands area, which serves as a nursery for migratory birds from every continent.

Wildlife of the Arctic, clockwise from top left: a herd of porcupine caribou (Gary Braasch via NWF / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), a polar bear (Paul Nicklen/ National Geographic Creative), a flock of migratory Kittiwakes (Ralph Lee Hopkins / National Geographic Creative), and a ringed seal (Michael Cameron / NOAA)

For years, the northeastern corner of the Western Arctic has undergone a transformation from a tranquil landscape to a flood-lit industrial zone, as the fossil fuel industry has crept further into sensitive areas to set up drilling rigs, ice roads, airstrips, and mines. Bids for new fossil-fuel drilling spiked dramatically during the Trump administration, and now a patchwork of new leases have been doled out to oil giants.

ConocoPhillips’ Willow Master Development Plan would permanently alter the Arctic tundra with five drill sites, a central processing facility, an operations center pad, 37 miles of gravel roads, ice roads, airstrips, 385 miles of pipelines, and a gravel mine.

Earthjustice is actively challenging the plan in court on behalf of several clients.

President Biden has earned applause from many, including the New York Times editorial board, for making significant strides toward addressing climate change. Yet so far, the Western Arctic has been left out of this trend toward sensible policymaking in the face of an intensifying climate crisis.

Biden is a proponent of requiring greenhouse-gas emissions reductions for power plants, yet his Justice Department’s resolute legal defense of ConocoPhillips’ Willow project sanctions the release of 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is akin to green-lighting 66 new coal-fired power plants to operate for a year without any carbon controls.

Nor is Willow the only climate bomb threatening the Western Arctic. Under the Trump administration, a more protective land-management plan for the Western Arctic, called the Integrated Activity Plan, was scrapped in favor of a revised version, which essentially draws a road map for the oil industry to encroach further into fragile, ecologically sensitive areas in its quest for untapped oil reserves.

If Willow proceeds, the gravel roads snaking out from the development will give industry the ability to carve farther into undeveloped tracts that have never been exposed to industrialization, but are up for grabs thanks to the Trump-era land-management plan. Meanwhile, oil industry lease holdings across 2.5 million acres set the stage for an entirely new batch of drilling proposals like Willow to come to fruition.

A ConocoPhillips drill site in Alaska
ConocoPhillips Company

Even if the Willow project does not proceed and the more protective Integrated Activity Plan is reinstated, the Western Arctic still faces dire threats. That earlier plan still opens roughly half of the entire public-lands area to oil and gas development, and recent activity extending west and south of the current industrial hubs has further fragmented caribou habitat and caused significant noise and air pollution for neighboring Alaska Native villages.

Residents of the Native Village of Nuiqsut, located near the oil-drilling operations, have pointed out in court declarations that the changes seem to be affecting caribou behavior, creating a significant burden for a community where traditional caribou hunting is a primary food source and way of life. One client represented by Earthjustice’s Alaska office described a cabin their family has traveled to for years to teach the village youth about caribou hunting. When they look across the river from the cabin, instead of seeing the open tundra as before, they now gaze out across an oilfield. “There are too many overflights, airboats, freighters, track vehicle traffic, and personnel contact for our boys to hope to get caribou near the cabin,” the client wrote. “We feel that increased activities such as overflights are causing the caribou to avoid the area, forcing us to travel elsewhere to hunt for them.”

While short-term impacts are rapidly eroding an Indigenous way of life, the long-term implications are just as alarming. The exploratory drilling wells now being punched in the Western Arctic will give rise to more oil operations in time, each an alarming contribution to climate change. For example, five days before Biden’s inauguration, the Bureau of Land Management approved the drilling of two wells in the Peregrine exploration program, located in the southeastern portion of the Reserve. According to the company 88 Energy, which drilled one well last winter, the development could result in up to 645 million barrels of oil. That’s 55 million more barrels than expected from ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow development.

If allowed to proceed, these projects will extend U.S. reliance on oil long after 2050. But it isn’t too late for the administration to reverse course on Peregrine and Willow and immediately begin a process for creating a new land-management plan aligned with a transition away from fossil fuels.

In July, 30 Democratic senators and representatives sent a letter to Interior Secretary Haaland, calling on her to rethink Interior’s stance on the Willow Project. “Interior’s continued defense of this project in court does not align with the climate, environmental justice, and biodiversity goals set out by the White House and Interior,” they pointed out.

As the Biden administration weighs how to handle oil and gas drilling proposals in the Western Arctic, intense weather events that scientists have linked to climate change are unfolding across the nation. This year, roughly 800 people died across the Pacific Northwest during an unprecedented heat wave, and wildfires are raging throughout California, Oregon, and Nevada.

The recent Sixth Assessment Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report identifies methane pollution as one of the key drivers of the climate crisis, and oil and gas production is the largest industrial methane polluter in the U.S.

Nature isn’t waiting for sensible climate policies to be approved — and now climate chaos is being felt by millions. The Biden administration must reverse course on defending the Willow Project in order to prevent the irreversible damage this oil development would have on our climate and the unique ecological and cultural values found in the Western Arctic.

Based in Portland, OR, Rebecca is Earthjustice's Public Affairs and Communications Officer for lands, wildlife, and oceans.

Opened in 1978, our Alaska regional office works to safeguard public lands, waters, and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging, and to protect the region's marine and coastal ecosystems.

Caribou in the Western Arctic
Caribou in the Western Arctic. (Kiliii Yüyan for Earthjustice)