The U.S., Willow Project, and the Politics of Competition in Oil Dependency

Firstly proposed by ConocoPhillips in 2016, The Willow Project is a proposed oil gas and development project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) that contains 23 million-acre area on Alaska’s North Slope.

Firstly proposed by an American multinational energy corporation called ConocoPhillips in 2016, The Willow Project is a proposed oil gas and development project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) that contains 23 million-acre area on Alaska’s North Slope (Congressional Research Service, 2023). Although there was a temporary hold on the project in 2021, the Biden administration finally approved the project in March 2023. According to the Bureau of Land Management, Willow is projected to produce approximately 600 million barrels of oil for over 30 years, deliver $8 billion to $17 billion in new revenue for the federal government, and generate over 2,500 construction jobs (ConocoPhillips, 2023). However, despite a domestic or global agenda that motivates the US to run the plan, the project has been met with significant controversy, with environmental groups raising concerns about its potential impact on the Arctic ecosystem and climate change.

In the context of international politics, the politics of competition is prominently relevant to analyze behavior of states in global politics. It refers to the strategic interactions and rivalries between states as they compete for power, influence, and resources on the global stage, emphasizing the competitive nature of state in international relations. One of the relevant schools of theory is realism. In general, realism has a pessimistic behavior in viewing international structure as anarchy, forcing states to see others as rivalries and emphasizing the balance of power and security dilemma in a self-help global system (Pashakanlou, 2009). In this essay, one of the branches of realism is neo-realism, which will be mainly utilized on the arguments.

Developed by American political scientist Kenneth Waltz, neorealism, also known as structural realism, is a theory of international relations that highlights states as the primary actors in international law and how states exist in a self–help system where there is no legitimate authority to enforce rules or maintain order (Bell, 2022). Thus, states have the incentives to maximize their power and strategically calculate their interactions with other states in a relative-gain behavior, particularly in terms of economy. However, there are four significant differences between classical realism and neorealism, which are: 1) classical realists perceive human nature as the roots of international conflict and war while neorealism believes the anarchic international system is the main cause, 2) the state is superior to the system in classical realism while neorealism allows more space for agency analysis, 3) classical realists differentiate between status-quo powers and revisionist powers while neorealism regards states as unitary actors, and 4) classical realism restricts its analyses to subjective valuations of international relations while neorealist scholars integrate behaviorist approach that deploys a scientific approach to the study of international relations (Pashakanlou, 2009).

Under the unit of analysis of the nation-state, the U.S.’ ambitious mission to launch drilling construction projects in North Alaska is mainly correlated with the theory of neo-realism. The premise of the arguments is generally domestic insecurity, which two analyses can prove: 1) U.S. patterns of behavior in international politics and 2) international pressure.

               Firstly, the U.S.’ competitive behavior in international politics can be primarily observed through its protectionist manner, especially regarding any international agreement that may disrupt the progress of its oil upstreaming plan. One of the prominent examples is the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is one of the most significant climate missions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that aims to substantially maintain global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels and 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, assess collective progress of the agreement, and financially support developing countries to mitigate climate change (United Nations, 2015). Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement due to the unfair economic burden imposed on American businesses and taxpayers when the United States has also put some efforts to reduce all types of emissions, such as dropping net greenhouse gas emissions by 13% from 2003-2017 (Pompeo, 2019). Although Biden decided to rejoin and many sustainable economy practices were conducted, the U.S. still prioritized its economy, as demonstrated by how the U.S. could not meet targets stipulated in the Paris Agreement.

               On the other hand, the U.S. has also been strategic in running its economy by being less dependent on other states, especially in oil mining. In 2008, T.C. Energy (TransCanada) proposed a project called The Keystone XL pipeline extension with the U.S. It was designed to distribute fossil fuel and tar sands oil to market in a fast-paced way, expecting to carry 830,000 barrels per day of Alberta oil sands crude to Nebraska (BBC, 2021). As his political propaganda, Biden canceled the project on his first day of office in 2021 since the project can deflate the price of the U.S.’ most vital oil producer, ExxonMobile, and climate harm concerns possessed through the project(Lindwall, 2022). However, in 2023, the U.S. suddenly approved Willow when it can also produce considerable harm towards climate change, proving its protectionist behavior in independently strengthening its economy.

Moreover, the U.S. tries to involve itself in environmental concerns by providing multiple supervision prior to the early process of the project. In the Willow Project Letters of Support September 2022, it is stated that Willow has undergone a rigorous environmental review process with significant involvement by local communities and Alaska Native entities, highlighting the U.S. ambition to do what it takes for the sake of the project running in the first place.

               In the second analysis, the U.S. is forced to launch the project due to economic tension in global politics. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its allies agreed to phase out voluntary production cuts to the U.S. by 3.6 million barrels per day until the end of 2025 (Cooban, 2024). This poses a significant threat to the U.S., destabilizing oil prices. Although Biden has warned Saudi Arabia, the organization’s leader, OPEC+, seems consistent with the decision as it is critical to adjust oil supply based on market conditions (Energy Terminal, n.d.). Moreover, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a critical player in the global oil industry, has shown its interest and aspiration to join BRICS, a counterpart of the U.S. in the global hegemony, as China and Russia are a part of it (Al Mayadeen English, 2022). Ongoing wars, such as the Russo-Ukrainian war, also affect oil stability. This is concerning as the domestic demand for oil keeps increasing, and oil supply to the U.S., both domestic and international, can be more stringent, pushing motivations for the U.S. to keep running the Willow project.

               In conclusion, the nuanced motives behind the U.S. approval of the Willow project are evident. Due to its increasing oil demands but no sufficient supply, the U.S. has to approve the Willow project to provide energy security in the state.

Yehezkiel Vito
Yehezkiel Vito
Vito is a bachelor student in international relations at Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia. I am a highly motivated and curious individual with a passion for exploring new opportunities and making a positive impact with a keen interest in diplomacy and global issues. He is eager to gain hands-on experience in various professional job roles and volunteering initiatives.