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Biden Administration Approves Huge Alaska Oil Project

The administration also announced new limits on Arctic drilling in an apparent effort to temper criticism over the $8 billion Willow oil project, which has faced sharp opposition.

March 12, 2023

The Biden administration gave formal approval Monday for a huge oil drilling project in Alaska known as Willow, despite widespread opposition because of its likely environmental and climate impacts.

The president is also expected to announce sweeping restrictions on offshore oil leasing in the Arctic Ocean and across Alaska’s North Slope in an apparent effort to temper criticism over the Willow decision and, as one administration official put it, to form a “firewall” to limit future oil leases in the region. The Interior Department said it would issue new rules to block oil and gas leases on more than 13 million of the 23 million acres that form the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The drilling project would take place inside the petroleum reserve, which is located about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The reserve, which has no roads, is the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.

The restrictions, however, are unlikely to offset concerns that the $8 billion Willow project, led by oil giant ConocoPhillips, will have the potential to produce more than 600 million barrels of crude over 30 years.

Burning all that oil could release nearly 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. On an annual basis, that would translate into 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year. The United States, the second biggest polluter on the planet after China, emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

The president has been lobbied fiercely by the oil industry and Alaska lawmakers to approve the Willow project. Other supporters, including labor unions, building trades and some residents of the North Slope, have argued that the project would create about 2,500 jobs and generate as much as $17 billion in revenue for the federal government. Most Indigenous groups in Alaska, including the state’s first Alaska Native elected to Congress, Mary Peltola, also support it.

At the same time, environmental activists and the Native American community closest to the Willow site have fought the project through online campaigns, protests and meetings with federal officials, charging that approval of the project would be a betrayal of Mr. Biden’s pledge to move the nation away from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency has said that governments must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects if the planet is to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Representatives from ConocoPhillips said Sunday night that they would decline comment until they had seen a written decision.

Approval of the Willow project marks a turning point in the administration’s approach to fossil fuel development. The courts and Congress have forced Mr. Biden to back away from his campaign pledge of “no more drilling on federal lands, period” and sign off on some limited oil and gas leases. Willow would be one of the few oil projects that Mr. Biden has approved freely, without a court or a congressional mandate.

Climate activists said that they were pleased the president plans to protect the Arctic but remained outraged that Mr. Biden would approve a project they term a “carbon bomb.”

“It’s insulting that Biden thinks this will change our minds about the Willow project,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn’t make sense, and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project.”

The decision is sure to invite legal challenges from environmental groups.

“The Biden administration appears to be considering tinkering at the margins,” said Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, an environmental group. “That won’t remedy legal failures to address this project’s outside harms and we expect to see them in court if Willow is approved.”

The administration said it would approve permits for three drilling sites and deny two others, including one that would have been closest to a coastal wetland known as Teshekpuk Lake. The administration also said it would deny permission to build a road that would have led to the fourth drilling site.

ConocoPhillips had initially sought five drilling sites for the project and said it needed at least three to make the project financially viable.

In addition to rejecting two of the proposed drilling sites, the administration also announced that ConocoPhillips would return about 68,000 acres of existing leases to the government. Officials said they believe that would prevent the company from trying to expand oil drilling in the region beyond the Willow project.

Administration officials are moving ahead with the Willow project despite the fact its environmental analysis raised “substantial concerns” about emissions, danger to freshwater sources and threats to migratory birds, caribou, whales and other animals that inhabit the region.

According to the two people familiar with the deliberations, the administration concluded that it doesn’t have the legal authority to deny permits to ConocoPhillips, which has long held leases on the land in the petroleum reserve.

The cornerstone of Mr. Biden’s new Arctic environmental pledges is a declaration that the entire Arctic Ocean will be off limits to oil and gas leasing, completing an effort that began under President Barack Obama.

The Interior Department said Mr. Biden will designate about 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean near shore in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as indefinitely off limits for future oil and gas leasing. That would ensure “this important habitat for whales, seals, polar bears, as well as for subsistence purposes, will be protected in perpetuity from extractive development,” the Interior Department said in a statement.

Mr. Obama banned drilling in portions of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, using a 1953 law that allows presidents to block the sale of offshore drilling and mining rights. President Trump later tried to open all coastal waters of the United States to oil and gas drilling, including the areas protected by the Obama administration.

Mr. Biden also announced protections for a number of sites in Alaska, including Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay Special Areas.

Oil industry officials criticized the planned Arctic protections.

“In the current energy crisis, the Biden administration should be focused on strengthening U.S. energy security and standing with the working families of Alaska by supporting the responsible development of federal lands and waters — not acting to restrict it,” said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade organization.

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