WASHINGTON — Social media posts opposing the Willow project are racking up millions of views, days before an expected decision from the Biden administration on the proposed oil development on Alaska’s North Slope.
Over the past week, #willowproject has leapt to the fifth-highest trending hashtag on TikTok — not far below pop star Justin Bieber — with 4,000 posts and 17 million views as of Friday, according to the social media platform. Posts opposing Willow have also taken off on Instagram and other social media platforms, with creators saying the project will contribute to climate change and threaten wildlife like polar bears. As of Friday afternoon, a Change.org petition calling to stop the Willow project had nearly 2.5 million signatures as of Friday afternoon.
“The more that you can tell the story of this project in this place, the more people are going to understand how important it is to stop,” Kristen Miller, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said of the social media trend.
The viral anti-Willow posts come as Alaska leaders and advocates are also making a last hard push for approval. Alaska’s congressional delegation visited the White House on Thursday to make their final pitch, meeting with President Joe Biden and his senior advisers, according to a joint statement.
The $8 billion ConocoPhillips oil drilling prospect in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska would produce 180,000 barrels of oil daily at its peak and generate billions in revenue for the state and North Slope communities.
Some of the TikTok posts about the project imagine a planet made uninhabitable by climate change, while others show people calling the White House to voice their opposition. One popular TikTok video with over 325,000 likes pairs a clip of Murkowski advocating for with Willow project in a committee meeting with pictures of wildlife above the words, “what about ME?”
Alaska’s congressional delegation held a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday pushing for the project with dozens of supporters. In recent days, their official social media pages put out a blitz of posts calling on the Biden administration to approve the project.
“If the Biden administration listens to radical enviros over our Alaska Native community, all of their talk of racial justice is, quite frankly, bull----,” Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a tweet Friday.
Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat President Nagruk Harcharek, who supports the Willow project, said the outpouring of opposition does not represent the many leaders in Alaska and on the North Slope who back the project.
“Outside voices opposing the Willow Project, like the Change.org petition, frequently cite concern for Alaska Native communities, yet none take the time to listen to the voices of those who live on the North Slope and overwhelmingly support the project,” Harcharek said in a statement.
“Our message is clear: the majority consensus on the North Slope supports the Willow Project. Its economic benefits are obvious, as its ability to coexist with our traditional subsistence lifestyle,” he said.
Rebecca Boys, a spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips, said that the project has undergone a “comprehensive” regulatory and environmental review.
“The Willow project fits with the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security — all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities,” Boys said in a statement.
Alex Haraus, a content creator who travels around the country advocating on environmental issues, has been been posting anti-Willow videos on TikTok for his more than 600,000 followers and urging people to speak out against the project. He said he intentionally pronounces ConocoPhillips’ name wrong to drive up engagement on his videos and further spread the word.
Haraus said he’s worried about the impact Willow could have on subsistence food sources and public health for the people living near the project.
“This is just what happens when you have millions of people that feel empowered to actually use their voice about something that they care about,” Haraus said about the viral trend.
Elise Joshi, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, has been making anti-Willow videos on TikTok to her 122,000 followers since the Biden administration released its final environmental review last month. Joshi said that the Willow project issue has particularly resonated with members of Gen Z who voted for Biden because of his campaign commitment to protect the climate.
“It was just building momentum since that report came out, and over the last week, people have been educated,” Joshi said. “There’s a juxtaposition happening right now in young people’s minds where the person that they voted for who pledged to end new oil drilling on federal land is potentially going to approve a new oil project.”
Conservation and Indigenous groups held a rally against the Willow project on Friday afternoon outside the White House. Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, said that the videos opposing Willow show that people around the world care about oil drilling in the Arctic.
“They understand that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” she said. “... I believe that this shows a shift all over the globe, that we demand our politicians stop ignoring our concerns.”