TikTok push targets Biden on Alaska’s huge Willow oil plan
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A social media campaign urging President Joe Biden to reject an oil development project on Alaska’s remote North Slope has quickly gained steam on TikTok and other platforms, reflecting concern that many young Americans feel about climate change.
The #StopWillow campaign has garnered more than 50 million views and counting, and was trending in the top 10 topics on TikTok as users expressed their concerns that Biden would not follow through on his campaign promises to limit oil drilling.
“It’s very bad for the planet,” said Hazel Thayer, a climate activist who posted the TikTok videos using the hashtag #StopWillow.
“For all the progress the US government has made on climate change, now it looks like they’re turning their backs on allowing Willow to pass,” Thayer said. “I think a lot of young people are feeling a little betrayed by this.”
At the same time, Alaska Native leaders with ties to the oil-rich North Slope support ConocoPhillips Alaska’s proposed Willow project. They have pushed back, saying Project Willow would bring much-needed jobs and billions of dollars in taxes and mitigation funds to the vast, snow-and-ice-covered region nearly 600 miles (965 kilometers) from Anchorage.
The Alaska Native mayors of two North Slope communities — Asisaun Toovak, of Utqiaġvik, the country’s northernmost community formerly known as Barrow, and Chester Ekak, of Wainwright, about 90 miles (144 kilometers) to the southwest — wrote an opinion piece on Anchorage. Daily news in support of the project.
In the debate, “the voices of people whose ancestral homelands are most affected have largely been ignored,” they write. “We know our lands and communities better than anyone, and we know that resource development and our way of life are not mutually exclusive.”
Biden’s decision on Willow will be one of his most important climate decisions.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who fought the Willow project as a member of Congress, has the final say on whether to approve it, though senior White House climate officials are likely to be involved, with input from Biden himself. The White House declined to comment Tuesday.
Climate activists are outraged that Biden appears open to the project, which they call a “carbon bomb,” and would risk alienating young voters who have demanded stronger climate action from the White House while he a re-election campaign is approaching in 2024.
Willow’s critics include the Pueblo Action Alliance, where Halaand’s daughter, Somah Haaland, worked. The Western Energy Alliance, an oil industry trade organization, claims it creates a conflict of interest for the secretary. Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz denied any conflict.
Alaska’s congressional delegation — including Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, who is the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress — supports the project and met with senior officials at the White House last week.
With a decision expected soon, attention to Willow is growing online.
The project’s nature-themed name is making it easier for the topic to gain traction on social media than other oil projects with more technical names, said Cassidy DiPaola, spokeswoman for People Vs. Fossil Fuels, a coalition of groups pressuring Biden to end fossil fuel projects. A change.org petition had more than 3 million signatures as of Wednesday, making it the third most signed petition in the company’s history, he said.
“Young voters felt this was betraying the climate goals they had set,” said Tyler Steinhardt, a vice president at Pique Action, a company that produces social media and mini-documentaries about climate solutions.
The proposed Willow project is within the Alaska-Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, an area the size of Indiana, although about half of the reserve is off limits to oil and gas leasing under an Obama-era rule reinstated by the Biden administration last year .
It’s also where subsistence hunters harvest caribou, seals, fish and bowhead whales to supplement the exorbitant food costs in rural Alaska, where a 24-ounce bag of shredded cheese, for example, can cost $16.99.
ConocoPhillips Alaska said Willow, one of the largest oil fields to be proposed in Alaska in decades, could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day, or about 1.5% of total US oil production. It could also help fill the 800-mile (1,287-kilometer) trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which is operating at about a quarter of its peak capacity in the 1980s, when more than 2 million barrels a day flowed through the line from North. Slope to Valdez for delivery.
In oil-friendly Alaska, there have been notable displays of support for the project.
The Alaska Legislature unanimously passed a resolution last month in support of the project. Local governments and Alaska Native corporations on the North Slope also support the project. Union leaders — a large Biden constituency — support him.
Alaska Native mayors said in their opinion piece that the project is expected to generate $1.25 billion in taxes for the North Slope Borough to pay for basic services such as education, fire protection and law enforcement. Another $2.5 billion is expected for a grant program that will provide other improvements such as a new recreation center for youth and community programs in Wainwright.
“It is time for Washington, DC, to listen to the voices of Alaska Native communities on the North Slope and approve Willow without further delay or postponement,” Toovak and Ekak wrote.
Not all elected officials on the North Slope favor the project, however.
Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the chairwoman of Nuiqsut, the community that would be closest to the Willow project, said she was concerned about the effect on her community’s way of life.
“There are many who would like to say that everyone in Alaska supports oil and gas development,” she told The Associated Press last month. “Well, for our village, this development is in the wrong area … We oppose it.”
O’Malley reported from Philadelphia and Gutiérrez reported from New York. Associated Press reporters Matthew Daly in Washington, DC, Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana also contributed to this report.