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Alaska oil drilling Willow Project approved, despite viral protests

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(NEW YORK) — Despite heavy opposition from environmental activists, a viral TikTok campaign and a campaign promise by President Joe Bien to move the U.S. away from fossil fuels, the federal government greenlighted a controversial oil drilling project on pristine Alaskan land on Monday. That decision won’t just impact the climate in the future, it could lead to more distrust of government among young people, experts told ABC News.

The $8 billion ConocoPhillips Willow Project is expected to generate 180,000 barrels of oil per day.

As climate activists utilized traditional methods to protest against the project by writing more than a million letters to the White House and launching multiple petitions that amassed more than 4 million signatures, the TikTok generation had other ideas.

Last week, videos posted to the social media platform with the hashtags #StopWillow and #StopTheWillowProject garnered hundreds of millions of views.

TikTok isn’t just comprised of popular dance videos, Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, who has been studying climate activism since the 1990s, told ABC News. Instead, young activists used a “very common tactic” to mobilize TikTok users in a growing topic on the platform to educate users, Fisher said.

“This is the first time a climate-related hashtag ever made it to a trending issue on the platform,” Fisher said.

Fisher was surprised when her 16-year-old daughter inquired about the Willow Project over dinner last week, she said.

“What’s really interesting is that there have been activist and environmental groups talking about the willow project for weeks, even months, and none of it got any news,” Fisher said.

This time, the efforts of young people were not enough, the experts said.

The approval of the Willow Project is contrary to Biden’s publicly stated goal to become the most climate-conscious U.S. president of all time — a promise he made while running for office in 2020, the experts said.

Young people are poised to become the largest bloc of voters in America by 2025, Fisher said. But distrust among young people is likely growing now that the Biden administration has violated its campaign promise to not grant any new permits for oil and drilling, Lise Van Susteren, a general and forensic psychiatrist who has researched how climate change has affected the psychological health of young people, told ABC News.

“We cannot expect young people to believe in government,” Van Susteren said, adding that the Willow Project decision affects the lives of young people the most.

The Willow Project was approved in 2020 by the Trump administration, but a federal judge threw out the permits in August 2021, citing fault in the way the federal government had assessed the environmental impact of the project.

The Interior Department said it substantially reduced the size of the project by allowing three drill sites instead of the five in the original proposal, the agency announced Monday. The decision also requires ConocoPhillips to relinquish its leases for 68,000 acres to create a buffer between the infrastructure for the Willow site and migratory routes for a nearby caribou herd.

The Biden administration said it will also move to protect 16 million acres of Alaska from future oil and gas developments in an attempt to split the difference between the Willow Project decision and the intense concern from environmentalists that any new fossil fuel projects put the country’s climate goals at risk.

“President Biden is delivering on the most aggressive climate agenda of any U.S. president in history and spurring an unprecedented expansion of clean energy,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement Saturday.

In the future, social media will likely continue to play a larger role in environmental activism, but that could be “dangerous,” because people en masse likely are uneducated about what they’re really protesting against, Van Susteren said. In addition, a “stressed” society is not likely to make the soundest decisions, and young people are currently scared for their lives and their future, Van Susteren said.

“Trying in the case in the court of public opinion, is always risky,” Van Susteren said, adding that the Biden administration left the public with “little choice” but to do just that.

ABC News’ Stephanie Ebbs, Molly Nagle, Trish Turner and Tracy Wholf contributed to this report.

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