JUNEAU, Alaska — The Biden administration is approving a major oil project on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope that supporters say represents an economic lifeline for indigenous communities in the region, but environmentalists That it is contrary to the climate goals of President Joe Biden.
The decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, was revealed on Monday.
What is Project Willow?
According to the company, the project could produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day – about 1.5% of total US oil production. Willows is currently the largest proposed oil project on US public lands. Alaska Republican US Sen. Dan Sullivan said the development “could be one of the largest, most significant resource development projects in our state’s history.”
So far this year, about 498,000 barrels of oil a day have flown through the Trans-Alaska pipeline, down significantly from a peak of 2.1 million barrels in the late 1980s.
ConocoPhillips Alaska proposed five drilling sites as part of the project. The US Bureau of Land Management approved three, which it said would include a total of 199 wells. ConocoPhillips Alaska said it welcomed Monday’s decision.
The company also agreed to give up rights to approximately 68,000 acres (27,500 ha) in existing leases within the National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska, where Willow is located. The action reduces the project’s use of freshwater and eliminates all infrastructure related to the two rejected drill sites, including approximately 11 miles (18 km) of roads, 20 miles (32 km) of pipeline and 133 acres (54 ha) Gravel is included, all said the U.S. Department of the Interior, which minimizes potential impacts to caribou migration and subsistence users.
Using the oil from the willow would produce the equivalent of more than 263 million tonnes (239 million metric tons) of greenhouse gases over the 30-year life of the project, equivalent to the combined emissions from 1.7 million passenger cars over the same time period. That would result in an emissions reduction of about 8% compared to Houston-based ConocoPhillips’ preferred approach.
Is there support for Willow?
Alaska has broad political support, including a bipartisan congressional delegation, Republican Gov. Mike Dunlevy, and state lawmakers.
There is also a “majority consensus” in support in the North Slope region, said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the group Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, whose members include most of that region’s leaders. Proponents describe the project as balanced and say that communities will benefit from the taxes generated by Willow to invest in infrastructure and provide public services.
Rosemary Ahtuangruak, mayor of the town of Nuiksut, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, is a major opponent who is concerned about the impacts on the caribou and its residents’ subsistence lifestyles. But there opposition is not universal. The local Alaska Native Village Corporation has expressed support.
“Today, the people of Alaska were heard,” said US Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat who is also Yupik. “After years of consistent, steadfast support for this project from people across the state and from every walk of life, the Willow Project is finally moving forward.”
Ahtuangruk had said that he felt that voices like his were being stifled.
What is the politics of decision?
Biden’s decision pits the Alaska lawmaker against environmental groups and many Democrats in Congress, who say the project falls outside his goals of halving planet-warming carbon emissions by 2030 and moving toward clean energy. Environmentalists say the approval of the project represents a betrayal by Biden, who promised to end new oil and gas drilling on federal lands during the 2020 campaign. Environmentalist groups urged the rejection of the project.
Biden has made fighting climate change a top priority and has backed landmark legislation to accelerate the expansion of clean energy such as wind and solar power, and to move America away from oil, coal and gas.
He has come under attack from Republican lawmakers, who blame him for raising gasoline prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Did Biden support the project early on?
In 2021, Justice Department lawyers defended in court an environmental review conducted during the Trump administration that approved the project. A federal judge later found flaws in the analysis, rescinded the approval, and returned the case to the Land Management Agency for further work. That led to a review released last month that laid the groundwork for Monday’s announcement.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the decision will not only mean “jobs and revenue for Alaskans, it will be essential resources for the country and our friends and allies. The administration heard the voice of Alaskans. They listened. As a delegation we pressing issues of energy security and national security.
What about greenhouse gas emissions?
Federal officials under former President Donald Trump claimed that increased domestic oil drilling would reduce net global emissions because it would reduce petroleum imports. He argued that American companies adhere to stricter environmental standards than other countries.
After outside scientists rejected the claim and a federal judge agreed, the Interior Department changed the way it calculated emissions.
In the latest review under the Biden administration, there was pushback for including a suggestion that 50% of willow’s net emissions could be offset, including planting more trees on national forests to capture and store carbon dioxide . Deforestation work on federal lands was something the administration had already planned and needed to meet its broader climate goals. The reforestation proposal was dropped from the final decision.
Michael Lazarus, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said the Willow project is “about oil production for decades at a time when the US needs to follow the path of drastic cuts.” “I understand the administration is under political pressure, but the science doesn’t change.”
What about Biden’s promises to reduce oil drilling?
After taking office, Biden suspended oil and gas lease sales and promised to overhaul the government’s fossil fuel program.
Attorneys general of oil-producing states persuaded a federal judge to lift the suspension – a decision later overturned by an appeals court. The administration eventually dropped its resistance to leasing in last year’s accord on climate legislation. The measure required that the Interior Department offer for sale hundreds of millions of acres of onshore and offshore leases before approving any renewable energy leases.
The number of new drilling permits for companies with federal leases soared in Biden’s first year as companies stockpiled drilling rights and officials said they were working through a backlog of applications from the Trump administration. Approvals declined sharply in FY2022.
The Biden administration has offered less acreage for lease than previous administrations. But environmentalists say the administration has not done enough.
The decision on Willow, one of the most important of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s tenure, was signed by her deputy, Tommy Boudreau, who grew up in Alaska and briefed state lawmakers on the project on Monday. Haaland was notably silent on the project, which she had opposed as a New Mexico congresswoman prior to becoming Secretary of the Interior.
What else will the administration do?
On Sunday, the administration announced that Biden would indefinitely cap future oil and gas leasing of nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of the Arctic Ocean and implement new protections at the petroleum reserve. The return of the offshore zone ensures that critical habitat for whales, seals, polar bears and other wildlife “will be protected forever from extractive development,” the White House said in a statement.
The White House said the action complements protections for the entire Beaufort Sea Planning Area, which builds on former President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of the Chukchi Sea Planning Area and much of the Beaufort Sea in 2016.
The Biden administration also said it plans to consider additional protections for more than 13 million acres (5.3 million hectares) within petroleum reserves that are designated as special areas for their wildlife, subsistence, natural or other values. . Details were not immediately clear. The administration said it will make the proposed rule available for public comment in the coming months.
The Interior Department limited oil and gas leasing in a 2022 decision to 11.8 million of the nearly 23-million-acre (about 4.8 million of the 9.3 million-hectare) National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska and the remaining roughly 11 million acres (4.5) designated million hectares) as closed for leasing.
Petroleum reserves on Alaska’s North Slope were set aside a century ago for future oil production.