Melting Alaska wants to drill more oil
The Biden administration has a big call to make on the ludicrous Willow project
If you wanted an example of the reason we’re still losing the fight to slow the earth’s heating, the proposed Willow oil project in Alaska should suffice.
This should be the no-brainer of all time. The ConocoPhillips plan for a massive new oil field development flies in the face of all climate science and reason. It would be producing huge quantities of oil for at least the next three decades—long past the point when scientists say we must stop using it (and long past the point when, with a serious effort to electrify transportation, we’d need it).
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And it would do so in a place—Alaska—already warming faster than almost any place on the planet. Warming so fast that taxpayers are already having to pony up huge sums of money to relocate coastal villages inland. Emissions from the Willow project’s oil would cause $19.8 billion in climate damages; it would generate $3.4 billion in federal tax revenue, which is…a lot less.
How insane is this project? ConocoPhillips has said it may need to freeze the rapidly thawing ground with massive chillers in order to drill for the oil that will drive that melt even higher. “Where necessary we use cooling devices (thermosyphons) that can chill the ground enough in the winter to help it remain frozen through the summer,” ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman explained, a sentence that historians (assuming there are some) will someday parse in an effort to understand exactly how off-track a civilization can go.
It would be an enormous step backward for the U.S. All the way back in 2015, when the Obama-Biden administration rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, the president said “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change, Frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.” That’s far truer now—back then we hadn’t yet signed the Paris climate accords. Back then we hadn’t had the massive heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest, nor the massive fires in California, nor the massive floods in Pakistan. Back then Sudan hadn’t suffered through five straight dry rainy seasons. Back then large swaths of Alaska’s waterways had not yet turned orange from a warming-driven plankton bloom that threatens local drinking water supplies.
If you want numbers, an analysis from the Center for American Progress finds
the carbon emissions expected from Willow would negate the estimated 129 MMT of carbon emissions avoided by reaching the president’s goals of deploying 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind energy by 2030 and permitting 25 GW of solar, onshore wind, and geothermal energy on public lands by 2025. Put another way, allowing the Willow project to proceed would result in double the carbon pollution that all renewable progress on public lands and waters would save by 2030.
President Biden has done good work for the climate—from the Inflation Reduction Act to the recent decision to protect Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. But physics doesn’t grade on a curve. When Interior Secretary Deb Haaland makes the call on this project, she’ll be deciding whether to put a truly massive slug of carbon dioxide into the air—co2 that will long outlive her, and all the rest of us.
She’ll come under huge pressure: as always, Alaska’s politicians, Democratic and Republican, want more drilling. The power structure is so pervasive that Alaska Public Media, when it ran a story on the fight, put it right next to a big notice thanking ConocoPhillips for its support.
The Willow complex is located on the National Petroleum Reserve, created many decades ago by people with foresight, who knew that the smart decision in the moment was to save the oil so we would be able to see if we needed it later. In 2023, the best and highest use of that oil is clearly to keep it in the ground. If we don’t reserve that oil, if instead we spill it into the air, we will pay a huge price. Alaska will pay more price than most (though those same politicians will do their bipartisan best to make all Americans share the cost of the damages.) We can’t keep doing this; this is clearly the place to stop. Deb Haaland, and Joe Biden, need to stand up to the pressure.
In other climate and energy news:
+Some serious schadenfreude. Many of us have known of India’s giant Adani Corporation for years, because they’ve been trying to build the world’s largest coal mine, in Australia, and we’ve been fighting it for…really, for as long as I can recall. This week, the company has seen huge losses, and it’s boss, Gautam Adani, is $36 billion poorer, and may no longer be the richest man in Asia. Why? Because the company has been credibly accused of “brazen accounting fraud, stock manipulation and money laundering,” in fact of what some are calling the largest fraud in business history.
+Don’t take it from me. AI thinks we’re on track to breach the 1.5 degree temperature mark soon, and keep right on going.
Utilizing a neural network, or a type of AI that recognizes relationships in vast sets of data, the scientists trained the system to analyze a wide array of global climate model simulations and then asked it to determine timelines for given temperature thresholds.
The model found a nearly 70% chance that the two-degree threshold would be crossed between 2044 and 2065, even if emissions rapidly decline. To check the AI’s prediction prowess, they also entered historical measurements and asked the system to evaluate current levels of heating already noted. Using data from 1980 to 2021, the AI passed the test, correctly homing in on both the 1.1C warming reached by 2022 and the patterns and pace observed in recent decades.
+A new effort is underway to divest California’s giant pension funds from fossil fuels. And given that the committee chairman who blocked passage last year has retired to become a sheriff, it has a real chance of passing! As Fossil Free California put it:
If passed, this critical bill would protect the retirement savings of California’s teachers, firefighters, and state workers from being used to finance oil, gas, and coal — the very drivers of the climate chaos upending Californians’ lives. Californians are being pummeled by season after season of fossil-fueled extreme weather, from the firestorm in Paradise to the destructive floods of January 2023 that swept away structures from Watsonville to San Francisco, causing over $1 billion in damages. It’s well past time to divest California’s public pension funds.
+An NRDC report finds that the big toilet paper brands are continuing to cut down old-growth forest.
+The meddling never stops: Joe Manchin is now trying to delay the tax credits for electric vehicles included in last year’s IRA bill.
+Good news from the coast of Portugal where “the world’s first semi-submersible floating offshore wind farm” is producing far more power than predicted.
+Turns out Davante Lewis’s big win in the race for Louisiana utility regulator was even more against-the-odds than we knew. DeSmog Blog has found that the state’s Democratic party was funneling utility donations to his opponent, even though Lewis was a Democrat… Turns out the state party chair, Katie Bernhardt
is the president of an oil and gas company that she took over after her father died and has a history of supporting candidates with ties to the fossil fuel industry. This week, a TV ad went out in the state featuring Bernhardt, alluding to a possible run for governor.
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Hi, Bill –
These statements are alarming:
• “Don’t take it from me. AI thinks we’re on track to breach the 1.5 degree temperature mark soon, and keep right on going.”
• “The model found a nearly 70% chance that the two-degree threshold would be crossed between 2044 and 2065, even if emissions rapidly decline.”
If this is true—there is solid reason to accept it as correct given the findings and admonitions in James Hansen et al’s December 13 preprint ‘Global warming in the pipeline’ (Bit.ly/Hansen-arXivDec22)—then Michael Mann’s “best climate science you’ve never heard of” is incorrect. (Bit.ly/CCN-Mann2Feb22)
Please take Dr. Mann up on the beer he promised and sort this out for me. I’ve been having a dialogue with another recognized world-class climate modeling scientist who was Al Gore’s science advisor during my 2007 Climate Project training in Nashville. He and I are frankly baffled by Gore’s statements at Sharm El Sheikh—statements that your quotes seem to contradict:
Appreciate you indefatigable “finger on the pulse” and graciously sharing an unbelievable wealth of knowledge about the proverbial “good, bad and ugly.”
I find it interesting that AI has such credence as of late. I’m not saying that such conclusions are false, only that machine learning seems to be a sort of “black box” where one doesn’t quite know where the truth lies.