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Is a major Alaska oil project a ‘carbon bomb’ or a nothingburger?

The Climate 202


A previous version of this article said that ConocoPhillips's proposal for Willow includes hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine and a major new processing facility. The proposal specifically includes 30 miles of road, an airstrip approximately one mile long, and 90 miles of pipeline corridor.

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Today in weird and relatable news, climate change is prematurely aging lizards. 🦎 But first:

Inside the debate over the climate impact of ConocoPhillips's Willow project

Is a massive oil project on Alaska's North Slope an environmentally responsible proposal or a ticking time bomb for the planet?

It depends on whom you ask.

According to a new analysis released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress, a preeminent liberal think tank, ConocoPhillips's Willow project would produce up to 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years. That's equivalent to the annual emissions of 76 coal-fired power plants — a third of all coal plants in the United States.

But according to ConocoPhillips, CAP's analysis is misleading and inaccurate. In reality, the company argues, the Willow project would have a modest environmental footprint in comparison to the nation's coal plants. And it would provide desperately needed energy and jobs for the region and the country.

The debate has enormous implications for President Biden's ambitious climate agenda, which calls for cutting U.S. emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030. It comes as the administration weighs whether to approve the multibillion-dollar effort to expand oil infrastructure on the nation's single largest block of public land.

Here's a look at both sides of the ongoing debate over the project — and why it matters for Biden and the planet:

The context

ConocoPhillips’s proposal for Willow includes more than 100 miles of roads and pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine and a major new processing facility — all in the middle of pristine Arctic tundra and wetland.

The dispute over the project's emissions spans several months:

  • In March, CAP published a report titled “The Biden administration’s easiest climate win is waiting in the Arctic.” The report asserted that if the Interior Department approves Willow, it would negate the emissions avoided by meeting Biden's near-term goals for deploying more renewable energy on public lands and waters.
  • In April, ConocoPhillips drafted a six-page rebuttal of the report that was shared with The Washington Post. The oil giant argued that CAP had made “statements and assertions that are factually inaccurate, logically flawed, and segregated from appropriate context for comparison and understanding.”
  • In July, the Interior Department released a new environmental assessment of Willow but declined to reveal whether it was leaning toward approving the controversial project.
  • And today, CAP released the new analysis — based on Interior's environmental assessment — concluding that Willow could generate up to 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years. ConocoPhillips also disputes this analysis.
The crux of the matter

Now that we've laid out the context, let's review the heart of the debate. While the disagreement is complicated, it largely centers on a hypothetical situation in which the Willow project were not developed.

  • ConocoPhillips argues that in this scenario, greenhouse gases would continue to be emitted because the market would substitute other energy supplies to meet demand. Therefore, the oil giant says, Willow would only result in a net increase of roughly 35 million metric tons over 30 years — just 0.15 percent of the annual carbon output of U.S. coal plants.
  • CAP argues that it's irrelevant to speculate about what might happen if Willow were not developed. Instead, the center says, Interior has a duty to consider what might happen if the project moves forward. And Interior's own analysis shows that Willow could pump up to 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — equivalent to operating 76 coal plants for a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.
What they're saying

In an email, ConocoPhillips spokesman Dennis Nuss said that CAP “continues to misconstrue emissions numbers and timelines to create misleading comparisons to what remains an environmentally and socially responsible project.”

Nuss added that “when complete, Willow will promote U.S. energy security, provide employment in the state of Alaska, and generate public revenue directed to North Slope communities for healthcare, roads, schools and other essential services.”

Jenny Rowland-Shea, CAP's director of public lands and the author of the new analysis, countered that Willow would be a “carbon bomb” at a time when “scientists and others are saying the U.S. urgently needs to move off fossil fuels” to meet global climate targets.

“We really, really can't afford to have this project happen,” she said.

Pressure points

Despite rising heat, industries push against safeguards for workers

As extreme heat becomes more common due to climate change, industry groups are fighting to prevent new regulations aimed at protecting employees from heat-related illness, Anna Phillips reports for The Washington Post.

Although more progressive places along the West Coast have adopted workplace rules to address heat exposure, many other states’ attempts to require safeguards have been either blocked or weakened by major companies, according to public records and those involved in efforts to write new rules.

The new standards could require companies to give workers water, shade and rest breaks, or set statewide maximum heat temperatures for workplaces. But companies argue that the regulations would expose them to lawsuits, cost a lot of money, represent a regulatory overreach and increase the burden on businesses to enforce the rule.

Some advocates are concerned that if the federal government establishes a heat rule or some other workplace protection related to climate change — which the Biden administration says it plans to do — it would face legal pushback from industry groups arguing that the hazard presented by the heat is not unique to the workplace, but rather is a universal risk.

Meanwhile, if the planet remains on its current track of warming by 2 degrees Celsius, the number of unsafe work days is expected to nearly double. Already, heat exposure kills an average of 40 workers annually and injures more than 3,000, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The government says these figures are “likely vast underestimates” because of underreporting.

Biden surveys flood damage in Kentucky, pledges more federal help

President Biden on Monday surveyed the damage from devastating storms last month that caused the worst flooding in Kentucky's history and killed at least 37 people, pledging to expand federal support until residents are back on their feet, Seung Min Kim, Chris Megerian and Bruce Schreiner report for the Associated Press.

Biden stressed that politics have no place in federal disaster response, despite his frequent clashes with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who led all 50 Senate Republicans in opposing Democrats' climate and tax package.

“We battle all the times on issues,” Biden said, but in helping Kentuckians rebuild, “we’re all one team.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One that the floods in Kentucky are “yet another reminder of the intensifying and accelerating impacts of climate change and the urgent needs to invest in making our communities more resilient to it.”

Monday's trip was Biden's second visit to Kentucky since taking office last year. He previously visited in December after a string of tornadoes whipped across the state, killing 77 people and leaving a trail of destruction.

On the Hill

Democrats’ climate bill could bring more offshore wind to the U.S.

A little-noticed provision in the tax and climate bill passed by the Senate on Sunday would open up waters off the coasts of Puerto Rico, Guam, and other U.S. territories to offshore wind development for the first time, Jennifer A Dlouhy reports for Bloomberg News.

The provision in the Inflation Reduction Act, which the House is expected to pass on Friday, would reverse a decades-old quirk in federal law that barred renewable energy developers from pursuing offshore wind energy leases in the five U.S. territories. It would also require the Interior Department to seek public comment on potential offshore wind lease sales there.

The proposal comes as the island territories, which are largely dependent on oil and gas for electricity, are being increasingly hit by worsening extreme weather events due to human-caused climate change.

“The territories need to be able to diversify their energy,” said Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore oil, gas and wind firms.

In the atmosphere


We also eat 25 percent of our body weight in food every day while writing this newsletter: 😂

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