If the world turned off the tap of fossil fuels tomorrow, all hell would break loose. Something like 30 percent of global electricity and 9 percent of transport would still be running; billions of people would be stuck at home in the dark.
That’s why, even though world leaders now talk constantly about transitioning away from fossil fuels, they also fret about ensuring a supply of oil and gas for next week, next month, and next year. But right now they are also green-lighting new fossil-fuel projects that won’t start producing energy for years and won’t wind down operations for decades.
The Biden administration just approved an extremely controversial proposal to drill for oil in Alaska on federal land. The project, called Willow, would damage the complex local tundra ecosystem and, according to an older government estimate, release the same amount of greenhouse gasses annually as half a million homes. The administration hopes to soften the blow with a set of restrictions on further drilling on and offshore in the area, as if to say that Willow will be the last major extraction project in the Alaskan Arctic–one last big score, to propel us across the energy gap.
But oil from these three sites won’t start to flow until six years. It won’t address any of our next-week, next-month, or next-year supply concerns. In fact, Willow probably won’t do much of anything. The gap could be nearly closed by the time the device is ready. The world might not have enough renewable energy to power everything by 2029, but we’ll have more than enough to keep the lights on without additional drilling.
The Willow site is in a chunk of federally owned land called the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, to the west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the state’s North Slope. ConocoPhillips, which has a long-term lease on the land, originally sought to build five drill sites. Even after a lawsuit brought by environmental groups pushed the administration to withhold approval from two of them, the federal government’s environmental impact statement for the project calculates that Willow would produce some 576 million barrels over approximately 30 years.
Activists say those barrels will come with increases in both greenhouse-gas emissions and local environmental destruction. The law firm Earthjustice, which has sued the government over elements of the plan, calls Willow a “carbon bomb.” The Willow Project has also been the target of a vigorous TikTok activism campaign. The Willow Project has been criticized by community leaders who claim that it threatens their culture and traditions. ConocoPhillips is planning to use cooling equipment called “thermosyphons”, which will keep the Arctic’s permafrost submerged under its drilling pads. (Ryan Lance, the company’s chairman, said in a statement, “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security.”)
But in a state that has long depended on oil and gas revenues, Willow has also received vigorous support. Leaders for Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, a coalition of North Slope Inupiat leaders, said in a statement that the project means “generational economic stability” for their region. ConocoPhillips estimates the project would produce “2,500 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs,” and generate more than $8 to 17 billion in government revenue. Alaska’s two Republican Senators and one Democratic congresswoman co-wrote an op-ed in support of the Willow project. The bipartisan trio stated that while we all acknowledge the importance of cleaner energy, there’s a significant gap in our ability to produce it.
It is true that not enough solar panels or wind turbines exist to replace fossil fuels. The shockwaves caused by the Russian invasion in Ukraine have also impacted prices and supplies. But assuming that this “state of emergency” will persist is a mistake, says Jennifer Layke, the global energy director of the World Resources Institute. The United States is now an oil exporter net. In 2022, we exported nearly 6 million barrels a day, a new record. Layke stated that the decision to move forward with Willow is economic. “It’s not about renewables transition.” She said we wouldn’t be drilling in Arctic at the moment if it was.
Given how quickly renewables are ramping up, experts say the world could meet its energy needs without drilling any new wells. In May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organization that tracks and analyzes the global energy system, produced a “roadmap” to achieve the goal of “net-zero emissions in 2050.” The report recommends an immediate end to new oil and gas fields, plus a ban on new coal mines and mine extensions–along with massive investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency and a tax on carbon. In this future, total energy supply drops 7 percent by the end of the decade, relative to 2020, as the mix of energy sources reshuffles, but increased energy efficiency makes up the difference.
The IEA pathway is a bit utopian, because it assumes that every nation tries its best to decarbonize all at once when the reality is likely to be far messier. We now come to another argument Alaskan political leaders made for approving Willow. They wrote that Willow was “we need oil” and that it is the best choice when compared with other sources. Indeed, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ran a modeling exercise to estimate the emissions associated with not drilling at the Willow site, they concluded that only 11 percent of total energy produced by the project would never be used in a world without Willow and that less than 10 percent of the energy not produced at Willow would be instead produced by natural gas or renewable sources. The rest of it would be replaced with oil imported from overseas.
However, the BLM model is based on the way the energy market has looked in the past, not the way it is shaping up to look in a greener future. The report admits as much, saying, “Energy substitutes for Willow may look significantly different in a low carbon future.” Whether other oil-producing countries might also, over the course of the next several decades, eventually decide to limit or end their fossil-fuel production is not taken into account. Nor does the model include the effect of the United States keeping or losing the moral high ground it might need to help broker a substantive global cooperative agreement to enact such limits.
Even the BLM’s own model, which somewhat absurdly assumes that “regulations and consumption patterns will not change over the long term,” tells us that approving Willow will increase total global energy use and displace at least some energy that could have been generated cleanly–all to produce oil that experts say we simply do not need to bridge any “gap” between where we stand and the greener future ahead. Every day, the gap gets narrower. Moves like the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act are only compressing it further, as monetary incentives for building renewable energy infrastructure and buying electric cars work their magic on the collective behavior of Americans.
The IEA forecasts that the world will add as much renewable power in the next five years as it did in the past 20. If renewables keep growing at their current rate, it projects, renewable energy would account for 38 percent of global electricity by 2027–two years before Willow oil would finally start flowing. Add in some serious demand reduction through energy-efficiency improvements and electrification of transport, and our remaining fossil-fuel needs will easily be met by existing drill sites. Forget about not needing Willow at the end of its 30-year lifespan. It’ll be obsolete before the ribbon is cut.
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