Willow Project-3

Oil Company and Humanity’s Survival

Vinod Mubayi

The US Administration recently gave approval to the Willow Project, a mega scale oil extraction project in a pristine wilderness area of Alaska at the edge of the Arctic Circle that is expected to produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day. The production and use of this quantity of petroleum will add over 9 million metric tons each year of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to the earth’s atmosphere for approximately the next 30 years. This will happen at a time when the world is expected to halve its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the year 2030 to prevent global temperature rising beyond 1.5 degrees C according to the recently released sixth assessment report AR6 of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) the world’s most authoritative scientific body on climate change. AR6 has made clear the grave consequences of the worldwide rise in GHG emissions and the possibility of irreversible changes to the earth’s climate leading to large parts of the world becoming uninhabitable should the world leaders fail to change course.

The Willow project is owned by the oil major ConocoPhillips that obtained lease rights for the area located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A)back in the late 1990s. While environmental groups have criticized the US administration for approving the project, legal analysts have pointed out that the government had few options given that ConocoPhillips held the lease rights to a portion of the NPR-A reserves, and the government would have lost in court if they had tried to block the project and had been sued.

Moreover, while Willow is a major oil development project, it needs to be pointed out that it is just one of many hundreds of new oil and gas extraction projects that were approved just last year of which many are in the US itself. Indeed, if the fracking of shale rock to extract natural gas that is occurring in the US is included, the US could be the world’s leading oil and gas producer along with other major oil and gas producing countries like Saudi Arabia and Norway. In fact, an analysis of new oil and gas projects approved in just 2022 and 2023 in 30 countries reported in the New York Times (NYT) newspaper of April 6, 2023 shows that several tens of billions of barrels of oil equivalent will be produced over the lifetime of these projects, typically 30 years, over and above the current production of oil and gas that is already too high and needs to be reduced to meet climate goals.

In the last year, as the covid pandemic waned, oil company production and profits have literally soared to astronomical levels with the major oil companies, BP, Shell, Exxon, etc., raking in record profits of tens of billions of dollars. This bonanza is expected to continue for some years based on the planned projects that have either been approved or are in the approval chain. As the NYT report quoted above reveals:

“Amid the record profits fossil fuel companies made last year, some also extended timelines for production further into the future, in essence reneging on pledges to transition their businesses, however slowly, toward renewable energy. BP recently revised its plan to cut production by 40 percent by 2030, setting a new target of 25 percent. The company’s stock price surged on the news.”

Along with oil and gas, the other, dirtier, fossil fuel, coal, still appears to have plenty of life left. Both China and India are expanding coal production and implementing thermal power projects based on coal combustion. Despite the extensive lip service paid to renewables, India opened up significant areas of virgin forest in Chhattisgarh to bids by private investors to extract coal via strip mining, the most environmentally destructive form of coal extraction, that will destroy many thousands of acres of old growth trees. No surprise that Adani won most of the bids or that his power company has contracted to supply Bangladesh power from a plant in Jharkhand that will burn coal imported from Adani’s mine in Australia. The latter project appears to have run into some trouble lately from the excessive price of power that Bangladesh would incur under the contract, allegations of corrupt payoffs to politicians and the financial turmoil currently affecting Adani’s companies.

One can pause at this point and consider these plans and projects to continue or enhance fossil fuel production in the context of the predictions of the IPCC AR6 report as well as the commitments made by different countries to reduce GHG emissions at various recent COP (Conference of Parties) conferences. AR6 indicates clearly that that even the current rise in global temperature of 1.1 degrees C is causing changes in the climate system in every region of the world including more frequent extreme weather events, rise of sea level and rapidly disappearing sea ice. The IPCC scientists unambiguously state that by 2025, at the very latest, world GHG emissions need to peak, then decline by 43% by the year 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050 if global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels is to be limited to 1.5 degrees C. The likelihood of this happening can be gauged from the fact that by 2019 emissions had increased by 12% from their 2010 levels and although there was a fortuitous dip in 2020 caused by the covid pandemic, emissions have continued to grow ever since. A rise in global temperature by 2 to 3 degrees C will lead to irreversible changes in climate, sea level increases that may doom many island and coastal area communities, and temperature levels that could render many areas in the world uninhabitable. South Asia, in particular, including areas of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh are likely to be among the worst affected.

These facts and scenarios are by now well known, and have been discussed at length in scientific reports as well as the media. So, one may ask why are billions, if not trillions, of dollars still being invested in the Willow project and hundreds of similar projects that will produce many gigatons of carbon dioxide and other GHGs over the next decades, which could well drown many portions of the earth’s surface and also render large land areas uninhabitable. And why are the social, political, economic, legal and governmental systems of these countries powerless to stop this from happening? Are the profits of the oil and gas companies more important than humanity’s survival? Carbon Bomb is ticking.


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Vol 55, No. 43, April 23 - 29, 2023