(Photo Courtesy of Gizmodo)
“A group of protestors hold up a large yellow banner with the words ‘Stop The Willow Oil Project’ written and plastered all over it, showing their dismay with the project.”
On March 13th, the Biden Administration gave a controversial green-light to oil company ConocoPhillips to begin mining for petroleum oil in Alaska’s North Slope region, home to indigenous people and endangered species. ConocoPhillips owns a lease on federal land there called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). The decision came as a surprise and betrayal to many environmental advocates, since Biden and many other democrats have pushed for climate change action in the recent past. To many, this is a step in the wrong direction, both for the Biden administration’s credibility and for the greater global initiative to cut down on carbon emissions.
Willow is the name of the commissioned project and it has received backlash, mostly from younger generations, with #StopWillow being a trending hashtag on Twitter and TikTok. While the pushback from that demographic is crucial, the climate crisis is yet to slow down and political action has not yielded much success.
Professor Jarrod Hayes is a political science professor focusing on international security, foreign policy, and global environmental politics. He teaches courses at UMass Lowell on those topics, as well. He says, “the idea that the United States, both domestically and internationally, is going to continue to approve these very large hydrocarbon extraction projects… not only doesn’t look good, it isn’t good.”
The Biden administration should have tried to battle ConocoPhillips on the decision to mine in the North Slope if they wanted to portray themselves as a leading industrial nation that is taking responsibility for climate change. There are political and environmental ramifications to allow ConocoPhillips to proceed, especially because Biden promised to end new oil and gas drilling on federal land during his campaign in 2020.
The more pressing concern is the environmental effects. Hayes says, “In terms of the flora and fauna up there… it’s unambiguous. This is very bad for them.” Mining is disruptive to migration and breeding behaviors as well as the habitats that belong to some endangered species. However, Hayes says, “Is it going to be… catastrophic? Probably not. It certainly pales in comparison to what the region is going to experience as climate change moves forward… climate change is where it is existential for many of the species up there.”
On its own, The Willow Project is not going to melt the North Slope. The greater problem is the little steps that take place in furthering global warming. Hayes says, “We have to start reducing emissions of hydrocarbon combustion… this is just another step forward in doing the opposite.” There are policies and safeguards at play, but it is going to take fundamental change to get where the planet needs to be. Hayes says, “This project isn’t the nail in the coffin, it’s yet another step… We can’t just keep taking these steps. In order to change direction… it’s going to be costly in a range of ways.”
Economically, it is not feasible for the country to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050, which is Biden’s proclaimed goal. Hayes says, “Right now climate change is a massive unpriced externality and the federal government is perpetuating that.” Unpriced externalities are costs that arise from consumer and producer relations in a market economy, which are not paid for by either party. The air pollution from gas powered cars is an example of this external cost. the motor vehicle producer nor the consumer compensate for the damage caused by gasoline and that is the structure at play in America.
“We can’t accelerate the metabolic capabilities of the planet, but we are running faster and faster and faster,” says Hayes. Industrial society has only been around for roughly one-hundred and fifty years. In that time, the need for energy has only gone up, while the Earth’s ability to keep up has diminished. Hayes warns, “The metabolic disjuncture is going to be so great, that you’ve gone off the cliff, you just don’t know it yet.”
In order to equalize the “metabolic” rates of society and the planet, people have to make serious changes in how they live. This is not an issue that can be shrugged off and placed on the desks of politicians and scientists and engineers. Everyone has to play their part in changing the infrastructure. Hayes says, “We’ve only been doing this for one-hundred fifty years.. That’s not that long… we have no idea what it’s like to run off that cliff.”