The Biden administration has approved the massive Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, angering climate advocates and paving the way for a legal challenge.
The Willow Project is a decades-old oil drilling venture in the federally owned National Petroleum Reserve. The area where the project is planned contains up to 600 million barrels of oil, although this oil would take years to reach the market since the project has not yet been built.
By the administration’s own estimates, the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year, the equivalent of adding 2 million gasoline-powered cars to the roads.
The approval is a victory for Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation and a coalition of tribes and Alaska Native groups who hailed the drilling business as a much-needed new source of income and jobs for the remote area.
“We finally did it, Willow is finally reapproved, and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brighten up because of it,” Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in a statement, adding that Alaska is “now poised to create thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenue” and “improving the quality of life on the North Slope and throughout our state.”
But it’s a blow to climate groups and Alaska Natives who have opposed Willow and argued the project would undermine the president’s ambitious climate goals and pose health and environmental risks.
The project galvanized an uprising of online activism against him, including over a million letters written to the White House protesting the project, and a Change.org petition with millions of signatures.
Environmental advocates are expected to challenge the project in court. Earthjustice, an environmental law group, has prepared a case against the project and intends to argue that the Biden administration’s authority to protect resources on Alaska’s public lands includes taking steps to reduce planet-warming carbon pollution, which the Willow Project would ultimately add to.
Earthjustice chair Abigail Dillen blasted the administration’s decision on Monday.
“We are too late in the climate crisis to approve massive oil and gas projects that directly undermine the new clean economy that the Biden administration is committed to advancing,” Dillen said. “We know President Biden understands the existential climate threat, but he’s endorsing a plan that derails his own climate goals.”
Still, federal lawmakers in Alaska applauded the decision, calling it a victory for the state.
“After years of consistent and determined advocacy for this project, from people across the state and from all walks of life, Project Willow is finally moving forward,” said Democratic Representative Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native. in Congress. “I want to thank the president and his administration for listening to the voices of Alaskans at the most important time.”
Alaska Native groups who wanted the project for the jobs and income it would bring to the region also welcomed the decision.
Nagruk Harcharek, president of advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, said in a statement Monday that his group was “grateful” to President Joe Biden and his senior advisers for endorsing the project and “for taking into account the will of the native communities of Alaska in favor of the Willow project.
“The Willow Project is a new opportunity to secure a viable future for our communities, creating generational economic stability for our people and advancing our self-determination,” Harcharek said.
In recent weeks, the Biden administration had considered reducing the number of approved drilling rigs to two and strengthening nature conservation measures to try to allay concerns from climate and environmental groups about the project. . Reducing the drilling platforms to two would have allowed the company to drill about 70% of the oil initially sought.
But ConocoPhillips and Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation aggressively lobbied the White House and Biden’s Interior Department for months to approve three drilling rigs, saying the project wouldn’t be economically viable with two.
The venture was eventually approved with three drilling rigs. The administration felt it was legally constrained and had few options to cancel or drastically scale back the project – which was originally approved by the Trump administration. The administration determined that legally the courts would not have allowed them to reject the project outright, two government sources familiar with the approval told CNN.
The final scope of the project will cover 68,000 acres less than ConocoPhillips originally sought, the sources said.
“It was the right decision for Alaska and our country,” Ryan Lance, president and CEO of ConocoPhillips, said in a statement. “Willow aligns with the Biden administration’s environmental and social justice priorities, easing the energy transition and improving our energy security, while creating good union jobs and providing benefits for Alaskan Native communities. ”
Biden also announced sweeping new protections for federal lands and waters in Alaska on Monday, alongside Willow’s endorsement.
On Monday, the White House made the entire US Arctic Ocean off-limits to future oil and gas leases. The administration will also later announce new rules to protect more than 13 million acres in Alaska’s Federal National Petroleum Reserve from drilling.
In total, the administration will act to protect up to 16 million acres from future fossil fuel leasing.
The protections will extend to special areas of Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Highlands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay – places that are important habitats for grizzly bears, polar bears, caribou and migratory birds.
On Sunday, an administration official said the administration viewed the new actions as a “firewall” against future fossil fuel leases and expansion of existing projects on the North Slope.
While praising the decision to approve Project Willow, Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, criticized the upcoming safeguards.
“The fact that this Willow [approval] comes with the announcement of future legally dubious restrictions on resource development on Alaskan lands and waters is infuriating and demonstrates that the unprecedented lockdown of our state by the Biden administration will continue,” Sullivan said in a statement.
Sullivan told reporters on Monday that the Biden administration assured him that existing lease rights in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska would not be affected by the new rules.
Environmental groups have criticized the Biden administration for its endorsement of Willow and said increased protections for other Arctic regions will not undo the damage the project will cause.
Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, said the league was “extremely disappointed” with the decision, calling the project “dangerous” and “dirty”.
“This is in direct conflict with the Biden-Harris administration’s goals to halve climate pollution by 2030, and it’s now all the more important that they double down on executive action that maximizes progress in climate and conservation,” Sittenfeld said in a statement. “The new protections announced for the endangered Arctic are significant, but they do not compensate for Willow’s endorsement.”
Lena Moffitt, executive director of Evergreen Action, which advocates for strong climate change policies, called the approval “an unacceptable departure from President Biden’s promises to the American people for climate and environmental justice.”
The Alaska Wilderness League, which works to protect Alaska’s natural areas from industry and fossil fuel drilling, said it was “deeply disappointed” with the approval.
“This is the wrong decision for our climate future, for biodiversity protection, and for honoring the frontline communities who have spoken out against this project,” said Kristen Miller, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, called the endorsement of Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland “disappointing.”
“The Western Arctic is one of the last great wilderness landscapes on the planet,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Industrial development in this unspoiled landscape will not age well.”
This story has been updated with more information.