You may have heard: President Biden approved an enormous fossil fuel development in the Alaskan Arctic on Monday. The Willow Project,a planned $8 billion oil and gas extraction endeavor by ConocoPhillips, is set to move forward in the state’s North Slope—despite fierce pushback from climate and other environmental stakeholders.
One nightmarish aspect of the Willow Project you might not have heard about is that ConocoPhillips plans to install “chillers” in the ground alongside its extractive infrastructure to manage permafrost melt and keep its drill rigs upright. In other words: ConocoPhillips will be incorporating passive, underground freezer systems (known as “thermosyphons”) into its development to make sure the literal earth beneath the site stays solid—because, you know, the permafrost is having a hard time these days, what with the rapid warming of the earth caused by fossil fuels. Everything is fine!
The news was first reported on by multiple outlets in 2020, when ConocoPhillips initially received environmental approval for the Willow Project under the Trump administration. In a statement to Bloomberg in August of that year, a company spokesperson wrote, “Where necessary we use cooling devices (thermosyphons) that can chill the ground enough in the winter to help it remain frozen through the summer.”
Despite a second, court-mandated environmental review, the ground-cooling tech made it into the finalized Biden-version of the plan without raising too many alarm bells—or perhaps prompting the federal government to self-examine and ask ‘Jesus Christ, what are we doing? Why?’
ConocoPhillips is hoping to eventually pump 180,000 barrels of oil out of the Arctic tundra at Willow Project per day. But accomplishing that feat will take some creative engineering in the harsh environment of northernmost Alaska. One facet of the challenge: disappearing permafrost turning the formerly solid ground into soup.
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Thanks in no small part to fossil fuel emissions enabled by petroleum giants like ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s permafrost layer is becoming less perma…nent. This is terrifying for all sorts of reasons, from the potential for melting permafrost to release long-frozen pathogens, to the ever-increasing quantity of additional, potent greenhouse gases emitted by melting permafrost every year.
Scientists say we could reach a major “tipping point” wherein climate change progresses to such an extreme that it dooms all of the Arctic’s permafrost to melt. If that happens, it could effectively sentence Earth’s atmosphere to a massive influx of C02 and methane that we’ll be powerless to halt.
Building and drilling into Arctic soil can make permafrost melt even quicker and destabilize infrastructure. Thermosyphons use a mostly passive heat pump system to pull heat out of the ground through subsurface tubes and vent it elsewhere. They aren’t a new invention by any means: the tech has been used all over Alaska and the Arctic for decades to protect infrastructure from ground subsidence.
But what is relatively recent is corporations including thermosyphons in fossil fuel development to enable more drilling in the Arctic tundra. It’s a startling illustration of just how desperate oil and gas companies are to continue extracting, against all climate logic and in the face of basically any self-imposed difficulty.
The federal review frames the thermosyphons as a way to preserve permafrost and reduce the environmental effects of the Willow Project. The plan document includes other “mitigation measures” for the site, including below-floor insulation, extra thick gravel roads, and buildings elevated on pylons—which are mostly standard for Arctic construction. Yet these are all less ‘environmental mitigation actions,’ and more company self-preservation decisions.
At a previous ConocoPhillips Alaskan facility in 2022, millions of cubic feet of natural gas leaked from the company’s Alpine site. The corporation’s own follow-up analysis determined that the leak resulted from permafrost melt triggered by its fracking.
Gizmodo reached out to ConocoPhillips with questions via email. In response, a spokesperson directed me to a 2020 blogpost ConocoPhillips presumably published in response to earlier outlets’ coverage of the thermosyphon issue.
“Passive thermosyphons have been commonly used in arctic engineering for over 50 years and are a best practice for sustainable infrastructure constructed on permafrost. They are just one of many tools used by engineers to ensure stable foundations on permafrost and have allowed for establishment of critical infrastructure in the Arctic region,” the company’s senior environmental coordinator at the time, Sarah Kenshalo, said in that statement.
Separate from the planet-wide implications of defrosting permafrost, there are also other issues for Alaska, specifically. Locally, as the Arctic heats up and permafrost melts, formerly sturdy ground can become softer, boggier, and less able to support infrastructure like roads and buildings or, say, oil rigs—even with thermosyphons installed.
Disappearing permafrost also has the capacity to cause significant displacement of both humans and wildlife. Already, the denizens of one Alaskan village, Newtok, have had to move because of permafrost melt. The extraordinarily sensitive nature of Arctic tundra ecosystems is one of the key reasons many environmentalists opposed the Willow Project in the first place.
Yet it’s moving forward anyway. Even though Biden promised no new drilling. Even though more Alaskan drilling was supposed to be off the table. Thanks to the miracle of innovative applications of old technologies, ConocoPhillips’ Arctic extraction aspirations will survive to build new rigs another day.