Climate Change, the Willow Project, and U.S. Security: a Maelstrom of Unreadiness

September 11, 2023 by Blake Hite

Oil rigs operate in the ocean surrounded by floating sea ice (Creative Commons | Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

Oil has long been a key factor in U.S. national security considerations. In this article, author Blake Hite argues the combination of climate change and oil extraction in the Arctic poses unique national security concerns that should be considered before U.S. officials approve additional Arctic drilling.

Much ink has been spilled over the anticipated climate effects that the Willow Project, a proposed Arctic oil facility in the northernmost reaches of Alaska, will have on climate change.[1] Environmental groups say Willow is a “carbon bomb” that would prove catastrophic to climate change efforts due to the amount of fossil fuels in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.[2] Others argue that the United States should develop Willow, and other similar projects, to counter adversarial nations that export large volumes of fossil fuels, such as Venezuela and Russia.[3] Proponents of that argument often claim U.S. national security is improved by Willow’s timely construction.[4] This article argues the opposite by showing climate-induced national security concerns prove that Willow is, at the very least, being approved too early.


Anthropogenic warming is experienced more acutely in the Arctic than elsewhere. Evidence shows the Arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the world average, a phenomenon known as “Arctic Amplification.”[5] This is not a far-away problem. The sea ice of the Arctic works as a reflective shield that returns significant amounts of heat (in the form of solar radiation) back to space.[6] As the Arctic warms and the sea ice gives way to the dark waters underneath, the reflective effects are reversed and heat is retained.[7] The cooling effect of this translation is estimated to be worth approximately one trillion tons of carbon, or “25 years of CO2 emissions at [our] current rate.”[8]


Arctic heat retention induces insidious second-order effects. For example, there is growing evidence that the Arctic’s changing landscape and rising temperatures contribute to the monsoons of Southeast Asia,[9] the wildfires of the western United States,[10] and droughts across the world.[11] These risks affect national security.[12] Protecting Arctic sea ice is therefore crucial to mitigating the effects of climate change and promoting U.S. national security.


U.S. adversaries are capitalizing on the loss of sea ice. Several years ago, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced a “Polar Silk Road” policy.[13] The policy enhanced the PRC’s economic focus on the Arctic.[14] Two leading reasons for the change are decreased maritime travel time to Europe and the opportunity to exploit and transport the Arctic’s vast troves of natural resources.[15] Similarly, in 2020, the Russian Federation (RF) released its updated “Arctic Policy 2035.”[16] Their position, however, appears more complicated.[17] The RF requires significant external investments and highly trained personnel to realize two interlocking economic goals: improved natural resource extraction (i.e., natural gas) and increased port capacity.[18] Although there are many who speculate the RF is hesitant to become too dependent on any single investor (here, the PRC)[19], their pariah status has left them with few options.[20] In sum, the RF’s goal is to become a leading supplier for two of the PRC’s many growing needs: 1) cheap resources, especially hydrocarbons, and 2) ports at which the PRC’s ships may dock during their transit to Europe.


These adversarial developments stand in stark contrast to the United States’ apparent inability to assert a military presence year-round in the Arctic. Congress noted in the 2023 NDAA that the Navy lacks “surface combatant vessels” capable of “operat[ing] in sea ice conditions at the levels present in the Arctic” despite “increasing commercial and military activity,” which itself is caused by “decreasing sea ice levels.”[21] If one compares that to the mission of the U.S. Navy – to maintain the freedom of the seas – [22] and adversarial opposition to the Navy exercising its mission,[23] the problem quickly crystallizes. The U.S. does not have surface ships like destroyers, aircraft carriers, or amphibious landing ships that can ensure freedom of the seas year-round.[24] Perhaps more importantly, the United States has limited capability of responding to adversarial events during the ice-covered months. This limitation is not Navy-specific. The U.S. Army appears to lack tactical vehicles capable of operating in Arctic winters.[25] The U.S. Air Force may also lack Arctic capabilities.[26] In sum, U.S. defensive strategy for the Arctic in winter in recent years has largely hinged on the hope that no contest would take place in the harsh environmental conditions. While this approach may have been prudent in past years, the question posed by this essay is whether it remains prudent considering the expanding national security infrastructure (i.e., Willow)[27] and growing adversarial presence in the region.[28]


The United States Department of Homeland Security is similarly unprepared for Willow. Director Jennifer Grover of the Government Accountability Office testified in 2017 that the U.S. Coast Guard (U.S.C.G.) failed to respond to 22% of other federal agencies’ requests for icebreaker support between 2010-2016.[29] Icebreakers independently respond to ships’ calls for assistance and can assist less-capable ships in navigating icy waters.[30] When a ship lacks the design features necessary to operate in a certain level of ice – often determined by the ice’s thickness – it risks being crushed.[31] But increased operational capacity in icy conditions comes with a trade-off in efficiency; ships tend to be more expensive, use more fuel, and pollute more.[32] Thus, U.S.C.G. icebreakers can: ensure ships safely traverse certain levels of ice-covered water; respond to maritime emergencies (perhaps including oil spills); and provide in situ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities for the military that may otherwise be lacking.[33] However, the Coast Guard has one functional heavy icebreaker in its fleet.[34] Further, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the single additional heavy icebreaker on order by the Coast Guard was behind schedule and over cost.[35] Ultimately, this inability to respond to status quo federal requests demonstrates a key gap in need of remediation before increasing maritime traffic that may require support.


Oil infrastructure is undoubtedly a type of national security asset.[36] The United States must be able to defend those assets across all domains – land, air, sea, space, cyber, and electromagnetic – 365 days a year. The apparent shortfalls in the U.S.’s capacity to defend these sites indicate that significant advances in Arctic military capabilities are required before Willow, and other projects, should be allowed to advance. At the very least, the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security should be required to publicly report on the short-, medium-, and long-term risks of their combined capacity gaps so Congress, the public, and private industry can make informed decisions about natural resource exploitation of the Arctic.


Advancing Willow without an adequate national security posture will decrease the adaptation time available to our military leaders. As an example, a leading cause of Arctic Amplification is the deposition of black carbon (BC) on icy surfaces.[37] BC is solid particulate matter (i.e., not a greenhouse gas) caused by the incomplete combustion of carbonaceous materials.[38] It is the second strongest contributor of climate change, trailing only CO­2 in terms of warming potential.[39] It affects warming in many ways, but a leading reason in the Arctic is due to the darker colors literally absorbing – instead of the ice deflecting – solar radiation.[40] BC, among other ‘short-lived climate pollutants’, must decrease by 35% by 2050 if warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius.[41] At least 80% of BC in the Arctic is likely tied to human activities.[42] A significant source of anthropogenic Arctic BC is from flaring.[43] Flaring is the combustion of ‘associated natural gasses’ found, but not extracted (typically for economic reasons), during oil production.[44] The method is used so methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2, is not “vented”, or released, into the atmosphere.[45]


The Willow Project will result in BC flaring emissions.[46] The increase in inefficient, heavy fuel oil-reliant maritime traffic moving Willow’s hydrocarbons will also emit BC.[47] In essence, Willow will directly (and indirectly through consumers using the hydrocarbons) accelerate the melting of the Arctic via BC deposition on sea ice. This will decrease the amount of time before maritime traffic can more easily traverse the typically ice-laden waters, decrease the amount of time before adversaries increase their reliance on Arctic maritime trade routes, and decrease the amount of time the United States has before truly requiring year-round capabilities in the High North.


Put simply: approving Arctic drilling is a self-inflicted wound to U.S. interests that many have anticipated but few seem willing to discuss. We must do better.


[1] E.g., Ctr. for Biological Diversity v. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 937 F. Supp. 2d 1140 (N.D. Cal. 2013).

[2] Ann Alexander, White House Poised to Carbon-Bomb Its Own Climate Progress, Nat. Res. Defense Council (Feb.  8, 2023),

[3] See, e.g., Jessica Towhey, Biden’s Approval of Willow Project a Win for National Security, Waco Tribune-Herald, Mar. 14, 2023 (describing various arguments made by proponents of the project),

[4] Defense Experts Affirm Importance of U.S. Energy to National Security, Including Alaska’s Willow Project, Off. of U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (Feb. 21, 2023),’defense-experts-affirm-importance-of-us-energy-to-national-security-including-alaskas-willow-project.

[5] Mika Rantanen et al., The Arctic Has Warmed Nearly Four Times Faster Than The Global Since 1979, 3 Comm. Earth & Env’t 168 (2022).

[6] Arctic Amplification, NASA (May 28, 2013),

[7] Id.

[8] Kristina Petone et al., Radiative Heating of an Ice-Free Arctic Ocean, 46 Geophysical Rsch. Letters 7474 (2019).

[9] See, e.g., Tiruvalam N. Krishnamurti et al., A Pathway Connecting the Monsoonal Heating to the Rapid Arctic Ice Melt, 72 J. of Atmospheric Sci. (2015); see also Suchithra Sundaram & David Holland, A Physical Mechanism for the Indian Summer Monsson—Artic Sea-Ice Teleconnection, 13 Atmosphere 566 (2022).

[10] E. g., Paul A. Knapp & Peter T. Soulé, Spatio-Temporal Linkages Between Declining Arctic Sea-Ice Extent and Increasing Wildfire Activity in the Western United States, 8 Forests 313 (2017); Yufei Zou et al., Increasing Large Wildfires Over the Western United States Linked to Diminishing Sea Ice in the Arctic, 12 Nat. Comm. 6048 (2021).

[11] See, e.g., Dong Chen et al., Effects of Spring Arctic Sea Ice on Summer Drought in the Middle and High Latitudes of Asia, 15 Atmospheric & Oceanic Sci. Letters 100138 (2022) (finding effects of sea ice on precipitation vary by latitude); Saeed Vazifehkhah & Ercan Kahya, Hydrological Drought Associations with Extreme Phases of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oscillations over Turkey and Northern Iran, 38 Int’l J. of Climatology 4459 (2018); cf. Sean W. Fleming & Helen E. Dahlke, Parabolic Northern-Hemisphere River Flow Teleconnections to El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation, 9 Env’t Rsch. Letters 104007 (2014) (finding non-linear connections between ocean-emptying river volumes and the Arctic Oscillation).  

[12] North Atlantic Treaty Org. Sec’y Gen. Jens Stoltenberg,  NATO Climate Change & Security Impact Assessment 6 (2023) (discussing direct and indirect risks associated with climate change); Off. of the Under Sec’y of Def. for Acquisition & Sustainment, Dep’t of Def., 9-D30BE5A, Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense 2 (2019) (“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense … missions, operational plans, and installations.”)

[13] See Anu Sharma, China’s Polar Silk Road: Implications for the Arctic Region, 4 J. of Indo-Pacific Affairs 67 (2021) (discussing the PRC’s growing Arctic interests in a special issue of the U.S. Air Force’s Air University’s professional journal for the Pacific area of operations).

[14] Id. at 68.

[15] Id. at 71-74; see also Mia M. Bennett et al., Climate Change and the Opening of the Transpolar Sea Route: Logistics, Governance, and Wider Geo-economic, Societal and Environmental Impacts, in The Arctic & World Order 161, 174-75 (Kristina Spohr & Daniel S. Hamilton, eds., Jason C. Moyer, assoc. ed.).

[16] See Julian R. Meade, Russia’s New Arctic Policy 2035: Implications for Great Power Tension Over the Northern Sea Route, Nat’l Intel. Uni., July 21, 2020, at 1 (published as a “Research Short” that discusses growing tension in the High North).

[17] See id. at 8 (discussing national security threats to the RF’s Arctic interests, including “slow social, transport, information, and communication infrastructure development” in the Arctic and “insufficient state support system for economic development”).

[18] See id.; Ed Davey, Top US Firms Supplied Equipment to Keep Russian Oil Flowing After Ukraine Invasion, Associated Press (July 18, 2023, 10:54 AM),; see also Malte Humpert, Russian Mining Company Partners With China to Develop Massive Titanium Deposit in Arctic, High North News,

[19] Camilla T. N. Sorensen & Ekaterina Klimenko, Emerging Chinese-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic, 46 Stockholm Int’l Peace Rsch. Inst. 1, 38 (2017) (cited by Jeremy Greenwood & Shuxian Luo, Could the Arctic Be a Wedge Between Russia and China?, War on the Rocks (Apr. 4, 2022),

[20] See Atle Staalesen, Chinese Investors Could Finance Murmansk LNG, The Barents Observer (June 7, 2023),; see also Samuel Good, Arc7 LNG carrier order canceled, Argus Media (May 18, 2022),

[21] H.R. Rep. No. 117-397, at 16-17 (2022), 2022 WL 2399109.

[22] Mission, U.S. Navy, (last visited Aug. 7, 2023);  see also U.S. v. Maine, 475 U.S. 89, 96 (1986) (discussing historical aspects of the international law principle for “freedom of the high seas”); Sean Fahey, Access Control: Freedom of the Seas in the Arctic and the Russian Northern Sea Route Regimen, 9 Harvard Nat’l Sec’y J  154, 164-68 (discussing the historical application of freedom of the seas by the United States).

[23] See, e.g., Thomas Nilsen, Russian Parliament Passes Law Limiting Freedom of Navigation Along Northern Sea Route, The Barents Observer (Dec. 1, 2022),; John Grady, China Taking Hard Line on Military Flybys, Freedom of Navigation Operations, Says Panel, U.S. Naval Inst. News (July 26, 2023, 6:47 PM),

[24] Cf. Sean Fahey, supra note 22 at 191-97 (discussing the normative implications under international law of adhering to restrictive Russian maritime laws along the Northern Sea Route, and discussing the possible legal implications of US-conducted freedom of the seas maneuvers in that area).

[25] H.R. Rep. 118-125, at *13 (2023), 2023 WL 4314344 (describing a “maneuver capability gap within the tactical vehicle portfolio [for] winter-rated vehicle[s]” that “is of critical importance for . . . operational success in the event of an engagement in a future contested Arctic region”).

[26] Id. at *31 (requiring a brief by the Secretary of the Air Force regarding Arctic air refueling capabilities).

[27]  See James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, PL 117-263, December 23, 2022, § 8312, 136 Stat 2395 (authorizing funding for a deep-water port in Nome, Alaska).

[28] See, e.g., H.R. Rep. No. 117-397, supra note 21, at 260 (“recogniz[ing] the Arctic as an emerging arena for great power competition” that “was once viewed as a buffer zone” but “melting sea ice is transforming it to an area of opportunity and conflict”) (emphasis added).

[29] Jennifer Grover, U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-17-698R, Coast Guard Polar Icebreaking 4 (2017).

[30] Abbie Tingstad et al., The U.S. Coast Guard is Building an Icebreaker Fleet, Rand Corp. 6, 8 (2020).

[31] MSC.385(94), at § 3.2 (Nov. 21, 2014) (International Maritime Organization resolution adopting the Polar Code and discussing at Sec. 3.2, the functional requirements for “ice strengthened ships”).

[32] Bryan Comer et al., Prevalence of Heavy Fuel Oil and Black Carbon in Arctic Shipping, 2015 to 2025, The Int’l Council On Clean Transp. 3 (recalling past studies that found most maritime fuel in the Arctic was heavy fuel oil because the ships tended to be larger); Martin Bergström et al., A Goal-based Approach for Selecting a Ship’s Polar Class, 81 Marine Structures 103123, 2-3 (describing the three categories of Polar Class ships, A-C, before discussing loss of efficiency as ice-capabilities increase).

[33] Compare Ronald O’Rourke, Congressional Rsch. Serv., RL34391, Coast Guard Polar Security Cutty (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress 2-3 (2020) (listing the missions of U.S.C.G. icebreakers, including defending U.S. sovereignty and interests while conducting “typical” missions like search and rescue), and Timothy Greenhaw et al., US Military Options to Enhance Arctic Defense, Brookings Inst. 8 (2021) (describing various military applications for Coast Guard icebreakers, including ISR), with Robert English & Andrew Thvedt, The Arctic, in Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Pol’y 338, 344 (Andrei P. Tysgankov, ed., 2018) (calling Senator Dan Sullivan’s characterization of icebreakers as essential for naval combat as “simply ignorant” before noting that neither the RF nor U.S. Navy would send surface combatants behind icebreaker ships).

[34] Jennifer Grover, supra note 27 at 3-4 (discussing disabled icebreakers).

[35] See U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-18-600, Polar Icebreaker Program Needs to Address Risks Before Committing Resources (discussing a likely icebreaker capability gap due in part to unrealistic assessments of shipbuilding activities).

[36] See 42 U.S.C. § 5195c (critical infrastructures protection); see also Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicar. V. U.S.), Judgement, 1986 I.C.J. 14, ¶ 237 (June 27) (discussing the theory of proportionality as applied to oil installations).

[37] Drew Shindell & Greg Faluvegi, Climate Response to Regional Radiative Forcing During the Twentieth Century, 2 Nature Geoscience 294, 298 (2009) (describing that both increased BC emissions and decreased sulphate precursor emissions led to most of the Arctic warming observed); see Maria Sand et al., Arctic Surface Temperature Change to Emissions of Black Carbon Within Arctic or Midlatitudes, 118 J. of Geophysical Rsch.: Atmospheres 7788 (“We find that BC emitted within the Arctic has an almost five times larger Arctic surface temperature response (per unit of emitted mass) compared to emissions at midlatitudes”); see Veerabhadran Ramanathan & Gregory Carmichael, Global and Regional Climate Changes Due to Black Carbon, 1 Nature Geoscience 221, 223 (“[past research demonstrates] the reduction of sea ice and snow albedo by BC is three times as effective as CO2 forcing for global average surface warming”). See generally Mark G. Flanner, Arctic Climate Sensitivity to Local Black Carbon, 118 J. of Geophysical Rsch.: Atmospheres 1840 (2013) (finding the effect of BC in the Arctic depends on the altitude of the pollutant, with lower-altitude BC inducing a warming effect overall).

[38] Tami C. Bond et al., Bounding the role of black carbon in the climate system: A scientific assessment, 118 J. of Geophysical Rsch.: Atmospheres 5380, 85 (2013) (“We estimate that black carbon, with a total climate forcing of +1.1 W m-2, is the second most important human emission in terms of its climate forcing in the present-day atmosphere; only carbon dioxide is estimated to have greater forcing.”).

[39] See, e.g., id.

[40] See Flanner, supra note 37.

[41] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 º C, Summary for Policymakers 12; see also Gabrielle B. Dreyfus et al., Mitigating Climate Disruption in Time: A Self-Consistent Approach for Avoiding Both Near-term and Long-term Global Warming, 119 Procs. of the Nat’l Acad. of Scis.. e2123536119 (2022) (finding that reducing CO2 while ignoring short lived climate pollutant emissions will likely result in near-term warming due to the cooling effect of CO2’s co-emitted aerosols).

[42] E.g., Mark G. Flanner et al., Present-day Climate Forcing and Response From Black Carbon in Snow, 112 J. of Geophysical Rsch.: Atmospheres D11, ¶ 1 (2007) (“Applying biomass burning BC emission inventories for a strong (1998) and weak (2001) boreal fire year, we estimate global annual mean BC/snow surface radiative forcing from all sources (fossil fuel, biofuel, and biomass burning) . . . to total forcing is at least 80%”); Negin Sobhani et al., Source Sector and Region Contributions to Black Carbon and PM2.5 in the Arctic, 18 Atmospheric chemistry & physics 18123 (2018) (“Anthropogenic emissions are the most dominant contributors (∼ 88 %) to the BC surface concentration over the Arctic annually; however, the contribution from biomass burning is significant over the summer (up to ∼ 50 %).

[43] See, e.g., Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Summary for Policymakers: Arctic Climate Issues 2015 Short-Lived Climate Pollutants 7 (2015) (flaring may account for up to 2/3 of warming observed). But cf., e.g., Patrick Winiger et al., Siberian Arctic black carbon sources constrained by model and observation, 114 Procs. of the Nat’l Acad. of Scis. E1054 (2017) (relying on Bayesian modeling software to find that flaring contributes 6% of Arctic BC).

[44] See id. at 4.

[45] Dana R. Caulton et al., Methane Destruction Efficiency of Natural Gas Flares Associated with Shale Formation Wells, 48 Env’t Scis. & Tech. 9548 (2014).

[46] Bureau of Land Mgmt., U.S. Dep’t of Interior, Willow Master Development Plan, Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, Volume 1 (2023) (deciding not to “explicitly quantif[y]” black carbon emissions).

[47] Bergström et al., supra note 32, at 3.