Willow Approval is Sensible Energy and Environmental Strategy

Capital Corner

On March 13, the administration approved plans for oil production at the Willow site on the North Slope of Alaska. The area is part of the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (NPR-A), which was established a century ago by President Harding as a reserve of petroleum for potential use by the US Navy. In 1976, oversight of the area was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management, under the Department of the Interior and renamed NPR-A.

The move was lauded by Alaskan elected officials and native tribes, who see the project as a huge boost to the local economy as well as a source of much-needed jobs. Sen. Lisa Murkowski stated that “we are now on the cusp of creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues, improving quality of life on the North Slope and across our state, and adding vital energy to TAPS [Trans-Alaska Pipeline System] to fuel the nation and the world.” Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan said that “[t]his decision is also crucial for our national security and environment. Producing much-needed American energy in Alaska with the world’s highest environmental standards and lowest emissions enhances the global environment.“

But the decision remains a controversial one. Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen argued that “[w]e are too late in the climate crisis to approve massive oil and gas projects that directly undermine the new clean economy that the Biden administration committed to advancing. We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals.”

In what appears to be an effort to maintain his green climate bona fides, along with the Willow decision, the President also placed 16 million acres of the NPR-A and Beaufort Sea off limits to petroleum development.

So, are the 600 million barrels of oil anticipated to be developed at the Willow project really the “climate bomb” activists say it is? Consider that the world consumes about 100 million barrels per day (mbpd) of liquid fuels (almost all petroleum), so that equates to 6 days of global supply.

But of course, the real argument against Willow is that ANY continued use of fossil fuels further risks irreversible climate change, and therefore ALL fossil fuel projects, whether they be production projects like Willow, or infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, must be stopped.

The argument is understandable, but it neglects one critical point: if we eliminate fossil fuels, how are we going to replace the energy that our country – and indeed the world – needs? Our energy system is far too large for electrification via renewables to smoothly pick up the slack of displaced fossil fuels. Not only would we have to fight local opposition to massive wind turbines and solar arrays throughout the country, but switching to 100% renewables requires energy storage capabilities that simply do not yet exist.

Specifically, battery storage requires massive amounts of rare earth minerals that in turn require major mining operations, an environmental challenge as well. While hydrogen offers great promise as an energy storage medium, it would require a massive infrastructure build-out that is likely to take decades to achieve.

If we are going to be realistic about our energy transition, we need to accept that fossil fuels will play a part in our foreseeable energy future. No less an authority than Dr. Ernie Moniz, President Obama’s Secretary of Energy, saidrecently that a 2050 net zero goal will by necessity include continued use of fossil fuels, along with technologies to remove and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

It is technology development that is critical to addressing the climate challenge. Whether that means batteries that are compact, safe and do not require massive mining operations, or the development of technologies that can more efficiently and cost effectively remove carbon from ambient air, technology development is our most likely means to address climate change.

It has been often said that “the Stone Age didn’t end for a lack of stones.” It ended because man developed better technology. Similarly, banning projects like Willow won’t make fossil fuels go away and solve the climate challenge. Addressing climate change means development of more cost-effective alternatives to producing and storing energy, as well as technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. That’s where our climate policy should be focused.

Kyle Isakower is Senior Vice President of Energy and Regulatory Policy at the American Council for Capital Formation