TikTok Activists Rally Millions Against Controversial Alaskan Oil Project

As younger generations grapple with the effects of climate change, TikTok is becoming an integral platform for environmental activism.

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Users of the viral social media app TikTok may hop on to watch a funny meme, use a wacky filter or discover new shops or songs. However, people can find so much more than just comedy on the app nowadays.

The Willow Project, and oil-drilling project in Alaska’s North Slope, garnered major TikTok attention, especially from younger demographics.

The $8 billion project by oil company ConocoPhillips was approved by the Biden administration after over two decades of planning beginning in 1999 under the Clinton administration.

President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest financing towards clean energy and climate in U.S. history last summer, which funnels over $370 billion in investments toward clean energy technology, manufacturing, and innovation. However, his approval of the Willow project has been regarded as a “betrayal of his promises on the campaign trail,” according to young climate activists Sophia Kianni, Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate.

Willow has been hailed as “exactly the kind of project that … should be easily supported by this [Biden’s] administration, given their priorities – the highest standards in the world on the environment, no doubt about it,” said U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), but many from Generation Z are speaking up in outrage against Willow.

One Tiktok user who identifies as Diné (Navajo), Nahiłii (African American) and Southern Ute, posted a litany of short videos related to the Willow project, revealing some of the Alaskan Indigenous community’s dissent against the project.

One video of over 200,000 views was captioned, “You said you care about the environment. You said you care about MMIP [missing or murdered indigenous persons]. You said you care about Native women. And you haven’t stopped Willow, Biden.”

This TikTok is one of thousands under the hashtag “#stopwillow” that currently has over 400 million views. The search term “Willow Project” has almost 1 billion views as of this month.

Dr. Yotam Ophir, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Buffalo, explained that a tug of the pathos is what makes videos become viral.

“The algorithms don’t prioritize the most accurate information,” he said. “They prioritize the most engaging inflammation, the most emotional, the most surprising, the most anger-inducing … Notice that none of it has to do with quality or accuracy or anything like that.”

Despite misinformation circulating around social media, Ophir also noted that, although the effect of social media on real-life policy is hard to assess outside of the scientific realm, social media helps bring to light and circulate issues like the Willow project.

“I think it’s fair to argue that social media helps us keep topics on the agenda to make sure that they’re not getting forgotten in the mixture of topics that floods us every day,” he said. “I will also say that social media has the capacity to kind of mediate between ordinary people and internally, and then other elites, politicians and so on.”

In addition, a petition on change.org urging the halt to the Willow project exploded in signature count, reaching over 5.1 million signatures as of this week.

The project would produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) at its peak.

Some experts and online activists say the Willow project is a “carbon bomb,” a term that was popularized following an investigation by The Guardian into oil and gas corporations “planning massive projects that threaten to exacerbate the climate crisis.”

The definition of a carbon bomb is a “gigantic oil and gas project that would result in at least a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes,” according to The Guardian. Although Willow may be the largest oil-drilling project on public U.S. land, it is projected to produce around 240 million metric tons of greenhouse gases over the project’s 30-year lifetime.

ConocoPhillips claims Willow will “decrease American dependence on foreign energy supplies” and use materials primarily sourced in the U.S. The company has been operating in Alaska for over five decades and is Alaska’s largest oil producer.

In the same time as this discussion, the Interior Department reduced the size of the proposed Willow Master Development Plan by rejecting two of the five drill sites and relinquishing 68,000 acres of existing leases in the NPR-A, including 60,000 acres in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.

The actions will create a buffer from exploration activity in migration routes for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd and other animals.

Additionally, approximately 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean is off limits for future oil and gas leasing, protecting the entire Beaufort Sea Planning Area.

ConocoPhillips published a news release last month, celebrating the Department of the Interior’s Record of Decision (ROD) on the Willow project. The ROD “expects to immediately initiate gravel road construction activities,” with an undetermined official start date.

The Willow project is expected to bring in between $8 billion and $17 billion in revenue for the federal government and Alaska’s North Slope, as well as provide over 2,500 construction jobs and 300 long-term jobs.

The economic benefit is a driving factor in locals’ support, including the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat and Alaska Federation of Natives.

The Indigenous Foundation, a grassroots, youth-led organization that raises awareness about Indigenous rights and culture, is one of many Indigenous activist groups that opposed the Willow project.

Founded by students Meera Baswan and Sena Yenilmez of Toronto, Treaty 13 territory, the Foundation published an article reviewing the potential impacts of the Willow Project, including 9.2 million metric tons of carbon emissions from oil extraction annually.

“However, many local environmental and Indigenous groups, including the community of Nuiqsut that is the closest to this project argue that any jobs and money the project brings in the short term will be negated by the environmental devastation in the long run,” wrote author Baswan.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the land in the North Slope where Willow will take place, received “substantial input from the public” after hosting seven public meetings and receiving more than 200,000 written comment submissions during the public comment period, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of the Interior on March 13.

The Willow project had “extensive public involvement,” with the public comment period being more than 215 days, said ConocoPhillips. However, opponents including Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of Nuiqsut, said the BLM provided only the legally shortest comment period of 45 days for the first draft and subsequent drafts of the environmental impact statement after a request for an extra 45 days.

Despite the online petition, viral TikToks and letters from Alaskan Native citizens, President Biden approved the Willow project on March 13. This decision came after a series of new rules barring oil and gas leasing in the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean and more than half of the NPR-A by the Secretary Of The Interior and Biden Administration.

The NPR-A on the Alaska North Slope is the largest plot of undisturbed public land in the country and has been home to arctic wildlife and birds for many years. Opening up the NPR-A to oil and gas exploration would disrupt this long period of tranquility.

TikTok is not the perfect vehicle for education due to its “short length” and video-only format, said Ophir. However, Gen Z has been able to find community and a voice on the platform.

“We often kind of dismiss Gen Z as being empathetic and as not caring,” he said. “I think those people show that it’s not the case.”

“I think it’s beautiful to see that people use the media to voice their duty, to let their voice speak up, and to show that they care and to do that in a way that their peers understand,” Ophir said. “Seeing their friends and peers and people their age speaking up, and then trying to make the world a better place, gives you a sense of community, a sense of belonging. And those are very, very, very valuable.”

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Melina Nguyen


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