TikTokers target controversial Willow oil project

Trans-Alaska Pipeline (Alyeska pipeline) running through landscape with Mountain range in the distance in Alaska.
The oil drilling development would be on federal land

US government officials are expected to make a decision on one of the biggest US oil projects in decades this week.

Environmental groups and some Native residents have long opposed the proposal because of its potential for climate impacts and wildlife damage.

But opposition has grown rapidly in the last few weeks as the #stopwillow campaign has gone viral on TikTok.

ConocoPhillips, the company behind the project, said it would create thousands of jobs and revenue for locals.

The Willow oil project - if agreed - could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the largest oil project in the region for decades. By comparison, Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, which is the largest oil field in North America, produces 281,800 barrels a day.

The US Bureau of Land Management estimated that the project, on Alaska's remote North Slope, would produce up to 278 million metric tons of CO2e over its 30-year lifetime - the equivalent of adding more than 2 million cars to roads in the US.

CO2e is a unit used to express the climate impact of all greenhouse gases together as if they were all emitted as carbon dioxide.

Environmentalists argue this undermines President Biden's credibility as a leader on climate change action, after his pledge to make the US a net zero contributor to climate change by 2050.

Mike Scott, senior campaign representative at environmental charity Sierra Club, said: "Approving [the willow project] after passing the largest climate bill in history would be a giant step in reverse."

The Bureau of Land Management's environmental impact assessment recommended scaling back the project to three drilling sites from five, and offsetting half the emissions, for example by planting trees to capture the carbon.

It said this would ensure the US's target of reducing its net greenhouse gas emissions by 52% below 2005 levels would still be achieved.

ConocoPhillips spokesman Dennis Nuss told the BBC: "We believe this project fits with the Biden administration's priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition, and enhancing our energy security."

Some Native Alaskan Iñupiaq have also raised serious concerns about the project's local environmental impacts, including disturbance to local wildlife, disruption to traditional hunting practices and a decline in air quality.

The drilling site would sit in the National Petroleum Reserve - the largest area of undisturbed public land in the US.

It plays host to critical species including polar bears and populations of porcupine caribou.

Advisory Board Member to the Native Movement and Mayor of Nuiqsut, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, has said the mitigating measures are not enough: "We know our way of life and the importance of our future generations and there is nothing in the new document that gives us assurances that we will not be put at risk."

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut and a critic of the oil industry
Dr Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut, is worried the project would damage the way of life of the Iñupiat

Other local leaders from the North Slope - the site of the potential project - have been more supportive and the economic benefits it could bring to local communities.

"I am very in support of the Willow Project and so is the majority of my community," said Asisaun Toovak, mayor of North Slope city Utqiaģvik to the BBC. The tax revenue from the project would be a lifeline for the North Slope, she said, which is in desperate need of affordable housing.

The Bureau of Land Management estimates the project could generate between $8bn and $17bn (£6bn to £14bn) and create 300 permanent jobs.

Speaking with Mayor Toovak, Nagruk Harcharek, president of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, a network of 24 local Indigenous groups, told the BBC they were both confident that the project would be carried out responsibly.

"We've been co-existing with development since the Trans-Alaska pipeline," Mr Harcharek said. "If there was ever a project that we thought would threaten our subsistence ways of life we would not be supportive of it."

Asked about the growing opposition on social media, Mayor Toovak said it had been "really hard" to see.

"Our voices are diminished by people who don't live here," she said. "They don't understand the harshness of living on the North Slope."

In the last seven days videos on social media platform TikTok tagged with #stopwillow, #stopwillowproject or other related tags have gained 100s of million of views in the United States.

Young TikTokers posting the videos have encouraged viewers to send letters to President Biden asking him not to go ahead with his decision. They report that one million letters have been sent, including from brands such as Patagonia.

Elise Joshi, 20, is a university student at UC Berkley and executive director of Gen Z for Change,  a coalition of young activists who use online platforms for social change.

In February, Ms Joshi created one of the first TikTok's opposing the Willow Project, calling it a "carbon bomb". "We cannot afford more fossil fuel projects," she said.

She was surprised when her #StopWillow video racked up over 300,000 views.

"Climate doesn't have its moment of virality a lot," Ms Joshi said.

Joining her in the #StopWillow Tiktok movement was 25-year-old Alex Haraus.

"Thousands of other people are all making content about this," Mr Haraus said. "It's not any one particular person. It's just so many people with so many backgrounds because everyone feels empowered to talk about it."

As of Thursday a change.org petition calling to stop the Willow Project on environmental grounds has gained more than three million signatures - making it one of the most signed petitions on the platform.

Senator Dan Sullivan, who is one of the three Alaskan congressional delegation members in support of the project, suggested that the social media trend might be the work of outside influences. During the introduction of a new bill to limit TikTok this week, the senator said: "Maybe that's the Chinese Communist Party trying to influence young Americans."

A decision on the project is expected by the end of the week. The US Department of the Interior has 30 days from the final environmental impact assessment issued by the Bureau of Land Management to make a decision. It declined to provide a comment to the BBC.

Additional reporting by Grace Conley