Willow is not just an “environmentalist” concern
HEATED analyzed 30 national news stories about the Willow project and found that 75 percent framed its importance as primarily political.
The Biden administration on Monday announced that it is approving the largest-ever proposed oil drilling project on U.S. public lands, in a direct repudiation of research warning that new fossil fuel development must cease to preserve a safe climate.
The Interior Department approved ConocoPhillips Alaska's Willow project, located in one of the fastest-warming regions of the world. If completed, this project would produce the equivalent of an estimated 263 million tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years. This is about the same as building 20 new gas plants and running them for the same time period; burning 8.8 billion pounds of coal every year for 30 years; or adding 1.7 million cars to the road.
Willow’s approval thus represents a significant threat to the global climate. According to the world’s top scientific authority on climate change, the IPCC, the world needs to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 to stabilize at safe levels of warming. Achieving that goal requires governments to stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects, according to the International Energy Agency.
The Biden administration’s approval of Willow also represents a major violation of Biden’s campaign pledge to put the world on track to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It also violates the spirit of the Paris agreement, which calls for nations to pursue efforts to prevent more than 1.5°C of global warming.
In sum, the approval of Willow is a major story about the safety of all life on Earth, and the failure of one of the world’s most powerful leaders to protect the planet’s future.
Most of the national media, however, did not take this approach when telling the story of Willow on Monday.
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How the national media has covered Willow
We were first alerted to a potential problem with national media coverage of Willow when we saw this tweet thread by Genevienve Guenther, the founder of End Climate Silence, an advocacy group seeking to increase climate coverage in news media.
In the thread, which has more than 700 retweets as of publication, Guenther complained that most early news coverage of Biden’s decision seemed to present the central conflict as political, rather than planetary.
As an example, Guenther highlighted the Bloomberg story that broke the news of Willow’s approval. Bloomberg’s story, she noted, attributed the project’s climate consequences to “environmental activists.” It also did not mention the IPCC’s warnings about the necessity of net zero by 2050; the IEA’s warnings against new fossil fuel infrastructure; or the pledges contained in the Paris agreement.
This is something that happens a lot with big climate stories. To avoid the perception of bias, news outlets sometimes choose to highlight the political implications of a climate fight, rather than the actual climate implications.
This choice can be legitimate, particularly if the publication is primarily politics-focused. But we know from experience that this choice is sometimes made because the political battle is more dramatic and easier to understand. And when it’s made too often by too many publications, it risks creating a news environment where readers understand the political importance of big climate fights, but not the actual importance for the planet they live on.
So we decided to take a deeper look into Guenther’s claims to see if these choices are actually chronic. Here’s what we found.
75 percent of news stories frame Willow as political
HEATED analyzed 30 national breaking news stories about the Willow project’s approval on Monday. We found that the majority—75 percent—framed the project’s importance primarily as political battle with environmentalists, as opposed to a planetary concern.
Here’s a few examples of what that looked like:
“The Biden administration approved the massive Willow oil project in Alaska on Monday, rejecting pleas from environmental groups …"
“The Biden administration approved the massive Willow oil-drilling project in the Alaskan Arctic over the objections of environmentalists and many Democrats who wanted the project scuttled."
"The Biden administration on Monday approved the controversial Willow oil project, clearing the way for one of the largest new oil and gas developments on federal land in Alaska in 20 years despite fierce opposition from environmental activists."
The majority of the stories we analyzed—73 percent—did mention Willow’s potential consequences for the climate. But it was not generally a priority. On average, the discussion of climate impacts didn’t appear until the seventh paragraph.
Here’s one of the better examples of a story describing Willow’s climate impacts:
“This extraction…would create one of the largest ‘carbon bombs’ on US soil, potentially producing more than twice as many emissions than all renewable energy projects on public lands by 2030 would cut combined.”
We also found that, while 27 percent of news stories didn’t mention Willow’s effect on global warming, 100 percent of them included a paragraph on how many barrels of crude oil the Willow pipeline could produce. That is an unconscious prioritization of the oil project’s gains over the environment’s losses.
Our analysis also found that only about one-third, or 37 percent, of stories about the Willow project mentioned the necessity of phasing down fossil fuels to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. And when that nod to fossil fuel climate impacts did come, on average, it appeared in the 10th paragraph—often near the end of the article.
Here’s an example of where fossil fuel phase-out language was included, even though it was only in a single quote attributed to a researcher:
“‘Fossil fuel phaseout is an urgent global priority…’"
The news media’s systemic failure to mention the role of fossil fuels in a net zero future leaves out necessary information for readers to understand the stakes of Biden’s decision. While it may be unintentional, ignoring the research on how fossil fuel emissions accelerate global warming is a political decision–one made in favor of the fossil fuel industry.
Shifting the way climate stories are told
Obviously, ours is not a peer-reviewed scientific analysis. But we did put some careful thought into the news outlets we chose and the questions we asked. If you’d like to look at our analysis and/or check our work, our full spreadsheet is here.
We also tried to be generous with our assessment. Even if an article only contained a vague mention of negative climate impacts, or even if it was contained within a quote, we gave it to them. We did the same thing for a mention of the phase-down of fossil fuels.
Ultimately, the point of this analysis isn’t to call out individual reporters or even outlets, who are under immense pressure to turn around breaking news. The point is to understand what messages are being systematically repeated to the average reader, in the hopes that highlighting them on this scale might help shift the way climate stories are told. As we’ve said many times, journalism is essential to any effort to slow the climate crisis.
On that note, here’s some journalism on the Willow project that we think is worth your time, after the subscribe prompt from Emily.
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Now onto some links and a picture of a dog.
How Murkowski helped move Biden on Willow. E&E, March 2023.
Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski reveals how she carefully orchestrated a pressure campaign to influence Biden and his senior team, in an interview with E&E News.
Key quote: “For nearly two years, Sen. Lisa Murkowski has played the long game on expanding drilling in Alaska: She has voted for many of President Joe Biden’s key nominees and legislative priorities while relentlessly bending the ears of top White House officials at every opportunity.”
Unstable Ground: How thawing permafrost threatens a Biden-supported plan to drill in Alaska's Arctic. Grist, Oct 2022
Last year, ConocoPhillips reported an uncontrolled gas leak at their Alpine Field site, about eight miles north of the Alaska Native Village of Nuiqsut. The leak was primarily a result of the company’s failure to anticipate how global warming would affect their drill sites. Will ConocoPhillips make the same mistakes at Willow?
Key quote: “State and federal oversight of oil and gas drilling has not kept pace with the changes wrought by a warming climate. The Alpine leak exposed deep flaws in ConocoPhillips’ understanding of the region’s geology, but regulators…continue to rely largely on the company’s assurances.”
Dark money eco group appears to be astroturfing opposition to major oil project. Fox News, March 2023.
If you’re reading this newsletter, it’s 99 percent likely that you’re not a consumer of Fox’s alternate reality. But we decided to include a story from Fox because we can’t effectively do our jobs without knowing what more than one-third of Americans, and 60 percent of Republicans, are reading and believing. Fox frames the climate impacts of Willow as talking points in a murkily-funded campaign by a Swiss billionaire. The funding is real; the context is really, really not.
Key quote: “A supposed grassroots movement on social media that opposes a major oil drilling project in Alaska is largely being driven and funded by an environmental group bankrolled by a left-wing billionaire.”
Catch of the Day: Today’s sweet doggo has a sweet (and sustainable) ride.
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The thing that's particularly galling is the implicit bias in framing the conversation about Willow in terms of "Biden vs. the activists." Owing to an assault on leftist activism from right-wing circles and moderate Democrats alike, news consumers are primed to thinking activism is code for being a whiny wet blanket who refuses to compromise.
I'm tired of being forced to feel like a downer when we all know the abyss is there. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
On point as always- so vital to consider the framing of big climate stories, especially when it passes most of us average readers by. (also big fan of Bunaka look at him go)