Rick Whitbeck: A year later, the Willow ‘victory’ still rings hollow, with 15.8 million acres locked up



Growing up and playing athletics, there were two coach-speak terms that I absolutely hated. A “tough-luck loss” implied things out of my team’s control led to defeat, and a “hollow victory” meant that my team didn’t really deserve the win.

Let’s just say neither were satisfying at all.

One year ago this week, the Biden administration re-authorized Alaska’s Willow oil development. In doing so, the President and his leadership team considered the near-unanimous support of Alaska’s labor and business communities, Alaska Native corporations and local, borough, state and federal government bodies and leaders. 

Willow’s re-authorization will lead to hundreds of full-time, permanent jobs. Thousands of construction paychecks and billions in investment from ConocoPhillips and its contractors are already flowing through Alaska. Ultimately, 160,000 barrels a day will as well, helping fill the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  

Yet, because of what has happened during and following the decision, Willow still feels like a “hollow victory” one year later.

To begin with, when Biden’s Interior Department announced the Willow decision, it made sure to celebrate that it had shrunk the original project scope by 40%, from five drill sites down to three. In addition, ConocoPhillips relinquished 68,000 acres in the surrounding areas of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).  Who knows how much oil and gas those lands may have held, or the jobs they may have led to?

Then, as part of the re-authorization, Team Biden ruled that over 50% – 13 million acres – in the NPR-A and 2.8 million acres offshore in the adjacent Beaufort Sea Planning Area were indefinitely declared off-limits to any or all oil and gas activities. Those orders reversed a 1923 decision designed to provide the U.S. Navy with domestic energy supplies for its military.

Had the trade-offs for Willow’s authorization stopped there, I may feel differently about the hollowness of the win. But, it hasn’t.

The re-authorization infuriated environmental warriors around the globe, who had used the power of social media to denigrate Willow as a ‘carbon bomb.’ Younger voters were especially vocal, declaring Biden ‘failed them’ with his re-approval. Many even stated that they’d have a hard time voting for Biden’s re-election.

Biden and his campaign team reacted to the backlash, because since then, he’s only increased the frequency of actions laying waste to Alaska’s resource development opportunities.

The next day, Interior withdrew the land-exchange agreement for a life-saving road between King Cove and Cold Bay. In May 2023, Interior declared a third delay in its review of the Ambler Road, and ordered new, statewide, surface mining regulatory requirements. 

The Bureau of Land Management joined the fray, giving notice in May it intended to lock up nearly 7.35 million acres from mining activities in the Birch Creek/Fortymile district of Alaska’s Interior, and followed it up with additional restrictions for the entire mining district in June. 

September saw Interior cancel fully executed leases for tracts in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which had been bid on at the conclusion of the 40-year fight to open the Plain to exploration. It also announced that the Congressionally required 2024 lease in the area was ‘under review’, with no firm dates available yet today.

To be clear, the re-authorization of Willow is historic and a welcome change from the near-continuous attack on Alaska’s resource industries since Joe Biden took office. Willow is a world-class field, and its impacts on jobs and energy security are welcome developments for Alaska and the U.S.

But the trade-offs and extensive anti-development decisions from this federal administration continue to stifle our state’s potential and future. Senator Dan Sullivan coined the set of actions as the “Last Frontier Lockup.” These decisions are historic because of how they are horrific and harmful. Should they continue the rest of this year – and, God forbid, for another four years – Alaska’s very economic future will be imperiled. If that happens, the “win” from Willow will be hollow indeed.

Rick Whitbeck is the Alaska State Director for Power The Future, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for American energy jobs and fights back against economy-killing and family-destroying environmental extremism. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @PTFAlaska. This column appeared first in Real Clear Energy.


    • Not nearly as much as Guo Wengui has invested in Steve Bannon and his klatch of far right wing extremists

  1. Maybe the O’biden regime is waiting to get enough illegals up here to work the Willow Project because it looks like Americans are not allowed to work since so many illegals need jobs and take priority over Americans?

      • Which part? Yes, to both parts. I know that Providence Hospital hires immigrants over Americans because they want to help the immigrants.

        • In the future as the US population ages and the birth rate falls, as it will, it’s the immigrant salaries and taxes that will increasingly pay your Social Security and Medicare benefits. So be careful what you wish for.

          And by the way, unless you’re indigenous, somebody probably helped your immigrant ancestors along the way, too.

          • “And by the way, unless you’re indigenous, somebody probably helped your immigrant ancestors along the way, too.”
            Got anything to back that up? My background is Irish immigrants to the NYC area. The only helping hands they go were from other Irish. Their lives were spent in ghettos. It took a lot of effort to legitimize the Irish immigrants. While not exactly historically accurate, the film Gangs of New York provides a dramatic picture of the reality the Irish lived through.
            Oh… and same for the Germans, the Italians, the Hispanic. No one offered a helping hand. Drop your idealistic revisionist history.

            • If your parents were born here, and you were born here, you’re indigenous to the United States.

              Race, gender, religion, all 721 genders are immaterial.

              • Correct. It took several generations before the Irish, Germans, Italians, etc… etc… etc… were accepted as Americans.

  2. You get what you want and still whine about it, justifying your unhappiness using contorted logic simply because you don’t like the grantor. What a tool.

  3. Willow was never a victory. It was a poison pill from Grandpa Bloodstains.

    A political stunt, he then began cutting the size and potential of the grant, closing off adjacent areas, creating access issues among other challenges.

    Willow was meant to be approved, not developed.

    Grandpa Bloodstains knows his long stated goal to end fossil fuels will disincentivize development, even if his stalling tactics do not.

    He also knows (hence the lopping off of so much of the grant) most leases are dry holes. Even if next to a productive one. The smaller the area, the less chance of success.

    Grandpa Bloodstains also knows it takes about to decade to actually show a profit, if there is one to be shown.

    The whole Willow project is political theater. Not energy development.

  4. Did anyone actually think shovels were going to hit the ground at the Willow project?
    Seriously? With this administration?

  5. In the end it’s all about the votes. Right now the environmentals call the shots because they are organized and have duped the world into believing that industrialization is bad. Until people wake up, we will face more of this. No middle road anymore.

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