Biden admin approves climate-polluting Willow drilling project despite viral #STOPWILLOW campaign

A young Arctic fox rests curled up on a hillside of tundra plants outside its den

The Arctic is “ground zero” for climate change impacts

Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Next steps: Fight back in court, keep up political pressure

If you haven’t heard of the hashtag #StopWillow yet, head over to TikTok. The viral hashtag was the fourth, seventh and eighth trending topic on the platform just before the Biden administration issued its final record of decision approving ConocoPhillips’ drilling project in Alaska’s Western Arctic trending behind only Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber and the month of March. 

In a confounding decision, the Biden administration chose to go against its own goals on climate and prioritizing environmental justice, as well as Interior Department stated concerns, and instead chose to lock in decades of more climate pollution. The Willow project is predicted to generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year. This is about the same as adding 1.76 million cars to the roads. Instead of prioritizing the health of local Indigenous communities such as Nuiqsut, the climate, wildlife and water, Biden chose to put profit, politics and oil executives first.  

“Despite President Biden’s historic leadership on climate, his legacy will now include approving a climate bomb that will guarantee decades of greenhouse gas emissions when the world should be moving away from fossil fuels. We will continue to fight this project with all means at our disposal,” said The Wilderness Society’s Alaska Senior Regional Director Karlin Itchoak.  

#StopWillow campaign reveals massive public disapproval

In addition to Biden’s decision coming as a blow to environmental and climate justice activists--a large contingent of whom are Gen-Zers--the decision to greenlight the drilling project faced major public opposition. Why? The power of Gen-Z voices and social media.  

It’s not often that climate trends on social media. Videos from influencers such as Wawa Gatheru and Elise Joshi generated more than 5 million comments asking the president to stop the Willow drilling project. Major news outlets even picked up on the hashtag. But the Biden administration approved the project anyway. 

With the Arctic being ground zero for climate change, where temperatures are rising at two to four times the rate of the rest of the planet, the stakes are high, and Gen-Z is ringing the alarm. Villages sliding into the rising sea, and thawing permafrost making infrastructure insecure with food sources disappearing is not the kind of present or future they want to live in.  

Not only does the Biden administration need to thoroughly review its practices and change the way it approaches drilling for oil on public lands, but it needs to do so fast if it has any hope of meeting its own commitments and leading on the kind of fundamental shift in energy policy that a livable future demands. The administration needs to make every leasing and permitting decision through the lens of a comprehensive plan to make public lands part of the climate solution. Rallying around stopping ConocoPhillips’ Willow project is a demonstration of the hope Gen-Z still has for a climate-first future.  

Republicans trying to roll back climate progress with additional slate of bills

ConocoPhillips’ climate-destroying Willow project isn’t the last of the oil and drilling projects we’re likely to see proposed by companies during the Biden administration, despite the newly enacted protections in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean. Willow itself could still pave the way for even more proposals in the region by leading to the building of infrastructure that will allow more drilling in the future. Across the U.S., oil and gas companies are hungry to snatch up public lands wherever they can – and their allies in Congress are trying to make it easier for them. 

In a series of hearings this winter and spring, House Republicans have been teeing up even more legislation that would fast-track drilling and mining projects, gut climate protections and harm communities.

Gen-Z will keep making noise against unjust and climate-destroying projects

#StopWillow was one point along the path of using our collective voices to ensure our representatives and leaders at the federal level aren’t just playing politics, but are actually serving us. We can and will also use our voting power and the power of collective action to push them to make decisions based on the health of our climate, our future and our collective well-being. We can take the fight for a better future to our state legislators and county commissioners. Call them. Email them. Visit their offices.  

Alongside plugging into local politics, activists can team up with allied organizations bringing litigation against the government to fight for a healthy, stable future. (We will be taking the administration to court over Willow.) Whatever option you choose, make sure you stay engaged.  

We cannot let politicians perpetuate the U.S.’ addiction to fossil fuel energy. Lives and the planet are at stake. It’s time to put communities and climate first, not the money motives of fossil fuel executives, lobbyists and their allies in Congress. We must keep making noise.