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Hack WatchNewsletter | March 10, 2023

The Willow Project Is Not A "Both Sides" Story

ClimateMedia Accountability

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

The Interior Department is expected to issue a final decision about ConocoPhillips’ Alaska Willow Project as early as this week. Stakeholders of all kinds are trying to get their last words in: Indigenous activists from Alaska traveled to D.C. this week to express their opposition; a #StopWillow social media campaign is trending on TikTok; Alaska’s Congressional delegation met with President Biden for over an hour last Thursday to plead their case for approval; those same members of Congress wrote op-eds in The Hill and CNN,com.

The project would be the largest oil extraction project ever proposed on federal lands (you’re not supposed to remember that Biden promised “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period” on the 2020 campaign trail). The project would result in 278 million metric tons of emissions, equal to the emissions of 76 coal plants. There’s also a fundamental question of trust at play. Will a White House credited for signing the biggest climate bill in American history (that is the only climate bill in American history, and not even really a climate bill) finally be rational about the planet’s precarious position, or will it sign off on a 30-year drilling project to feed the oligarchy’s oil addiction one more time.

So how is the media covering this? As yet another both sides, who-can-say-what’s-true political issue. It’s a framing that requires reporters to feign enough ignorance and delusional naïveté that, were it honest, ought to get any of these journalists fired. All of this just for corporate media to not look mean to the industry literally burning away the future of our one hospitable planet.

Recent coverage from several well-read outlets follows the same sequence: a lede explaining the upcoming announcement, a brief description of the project, and then justification from its supporters. These articles cite the same pair of sources: Alaska’s Congressional delegation, all three of whom support the project and a coalition of Alaska Native leaders from the North Slope. Their justifications reference the much-needed jobs and funding for basic services — roads, schools, health care — that the drilling project will supposedly bring. 

Finally, then, comes a brief mention of the “environmentalists” who oppose the project due to its alarming emissions and ecological devastation. Effectively, this narrative arc fabricates a false dichotomy between environmental interests and community ones that absurdly posits ConocoPhillips as an implicit champion of economic access and the public good. In contrast, the narrative paints those who oppose the project as outside agitators getting in the way of what local community members want — a classic right-wing strategy.

Here’s what this framing doesn’t say:

  • Big Oil has been shamelessly lying to the public about everything for decades. There is simply no reason to believe this industry’s promises unless one is inherently deferential to those with money and power.
  • Conoco, and other oil giants, are notoriously exploitative employers that routinely steal owed wages from workers and their families, habitually misclassify employees to deny them benefits and overtime, and misrepresent how many people they actually employ. 
  • Jobs in oil and gas result in routine toxic exposure that has been demonstrated to increase workers’ risk of “mesothelioma, skin melanoma, multiple myeloma, and cancers of the prostate and urinary bladder,” not to mention that of their families who live nearby. The long term health cost of cancer is also fundamentally an economic one, and one that surely Conoco has no intention of paying. 
  • Oil infrastructure has a direct correlation to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic. Specifically, organizations like Seeding Sovereignty have pointed to the “direct correlation between increased rates of sexual abuse, trafficking and domestic violence against women and children in regions where fossil fuel extraction companies set up ‘man camps’ to house workers.”
  • Willow has inspired massive opposition movements from other local Indigenous communities in Alaska. From the Mayor of Nuiqsut, the village closest to the proposed drilling site, to community organization Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the testimony recounted by community members has been one of the federal government’s utter failure to account for them and their concerns in a process tilted towards the ease and preferences of Conoco above all else. Indigenous leaders have expressed concern about physical and mental health impacts, ecosystem devastation impacting their subsistence lifestyle and leading to further food insecurity, and promised jobs going to outsiders, with jobs for local workers being only temporary.
  • Disenfranchised communities should not have to barter their healthways of life, and the basic livability of their regions to gain access to the economy. Journalists should question the neo-colonialist coercion inherent to forcing communities to choose between taking years off their lives from chronic methane exposures or from chronic poverty. Of course, journalists should also acknowledge that this country does in fact have a government (with quite a large budget) that could choose to empower people and to platform them on a bedrock of financial stability regardless of the oil industry’s latest destructive fascination in their homes. 
  • It is well accepted that we cannot rely on oil and gas to power us forever, and even more obvious that the oil from Willow will eventually dry up. The history of the coal industry shows how the fossil fuel industry treats communities after it’s gotten what it wants from them. Rural communities are now being abandoned by the corporations that ecologically devastated their regions, poisoned their community patrons, and are now shedding their liabilities by stealing owed taxes and dumping pension funds in order to flee with the last of their profits.

None of this is opinion. It’s just the basic facts that any halfway competent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, the environment, Indigenous communities, or any combination therein ought to know and include in their coverage.

When sweeping omissions (like these) are made in the supposedly official tellings of what’s going on in the news, the result is a series of puff pieces that privilege and benefit corporate bottom lines — and the extraction of people and planet upon which they are predicated — and sell out everyone else. Readers who believe they are getting the full picture about the impending Willow Project will be wrong as long as corporate media primarily parrot fossil fuel industry talking points.

ClimateMedia Accountability

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