Biden Expected to Move Ahead on a Major Oil Project in Alaska
The decision would allow an enormous $8 billion drilling project in the largest expanse of pristine wilderness in the United States.
WASHINGTON — In one of the most consequential climate decisions of his administration, President Biden is planning to greenlight to an enormous $8 billion oil drilling project in the North Slope of Alaska, according to a person familiar with the decision.
Alaska lawmakers and oil executives have put intense pressure on the White House to approve the project, citing President Biden’s own calls for the industry to increase production amid volatile gas prices stemming from Russia’s war against Ukraine.
But the proposal to drill for oil has also galvanized young voters and climate activists, many of whom helped elect Mr. Biden and who would view the decision as a betrayal of the president’s promise that he would pivot the nation away from fossil fuels.
The approval of the largest proposed oil project in the country would mark 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. The Willow project would be one of the few oil developments that Mr. Biden has approved freely, without a court or a congressional mandate.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, who has championed the project, said Friday night that she had not been notified of the decision. “We are not celebrating yet, not with this White House,” she said.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, pushed back on the idea that a final decision had been made.
ConocoPhillips intends to build the Willow project inside the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre area that is 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The reserve, which has no roads, is the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.
The administration slightly reduced the number of drilling sites the company had requested, to three from five. Still, Willow would be the largest new oil development in the United States, expected to pump out 600 million barrels of crude over the next 30 years.
Burning that oil could release nearly 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, a federal review found. Environmental activists, who have labeled the project a “carbon bomb” have argued that the project would deepen America’s dependence on oil and gas at a time when the International Energy Agency said nations must stop permitting such projects to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
News of the administration’s intention to approve the Willow project was first reported by Bloomberg. The decision has been one of the most difficult energy issues the Biden administration has faced.
Kevin Book, managing director of Clearview Energy Partners, a research firm based in Washington, said approving Willow would be a pragmatic decision. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many countries stopped or reduced Russian gas and oil purchases to curtail Moscow’s revenues. Those cutbacks have reshaped energy markets, created shortages in Europe and propelled the United States to fill the gap by producing more oil and gas.
“The war is not over,” Mr. Book said. “There is still a big potential risk to supply, and it’s not going to end even if the war does.”
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He also argued that the emissions linked to burning oil drilled from the Willow project would not have been eliminated if Mr. Biden had rejected the project, but simply generated elsewhere.
Administration officials are moving ahead with the Willow project despite “substantial concerns” about emissions, danger to freshwater sources and migratory animals. The government stipulated conditions that include protections for wildlife and reducing the length of gravel and ice roads, pipelines and the length of airstrips to support the drilling.
Alaska’s congressional delegation, which is unanimous in its support for Willow, met with Mr. Biden last week. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said he had handed the president a unanimous bipartisan resolution in support of the project passed recently by the Alaska Legislature.
Speaking in Houston at a gathering of oil executives this week, Mr. Sullivan said Mr. Biden’s decision on Willow was a test of whether the administration was serious about energy security.
Other supporters, including the congressional delegation, 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.
At a recent meeting convened by Ms. Murkowski, Taqulik Hepa, director of the Department of Wildlife Management for the North Slope Borough, said that municipal services in her community depended on taxes from oil and gas infrastructure.
Ms. Hepa said the borough and its residents were “keenly aware of the need to balance responsible oil development and the subsistence lifestyle that has sustained us.”
Environmental opponents of the project say it is incomprehensible that a president who wants to confront climate change could approve the Willow project. The administration estimates the emissions linked to the oil would total about 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution a year — equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year.
Activists this month mounted a protest in the rain outside the White House and rallied on Tik Tok and other social media against the project with the hashtag #StopWillow, which was used hundreds of millions of times. A petition to “Say no to the Willow project” on Change.org has more than three million signatures and continues to grow.
Karlin Itchoak, the Alaska senior regional director at The Wilderness Society, an environmental group, said approving Willow would be “a terrible, science-denying move” and hopes the administration changes course.
“Let us be clear: Willow has not yet been approved, and it is not an acceptable project,” Mr. Itchoak said. “The Biden administration must do the right thing and choose a no-action alternative in a record of decision to kill this destructive proposal.”
Among the staunchest opponents of the project are members of the community closest to it. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut, an Inupiat community about 35 miles from the Willow site, has said more oil and gas development in the area amounts to an existential threat to her community of about 500 residents.
About half of the reserve is off limits to oil and gas leasing and is where residents fish and hunt caribou, seal and other animals to consume as food.
In a letter this week to Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary, who fought the Willow project when she served in Congress, Ms. Ahtuangaruak said recent environmental reviews of the project had not adequately considered the impact on subsistence hunting and other needs of the local community.
The federal agency, she wrote, “does not look at the harm this project would cause from the perspective of how to let us be us — how to ensure that we can maintain our culture, traditions and our ability to keep going out on the lands and waters.”
Coral Davenport Katie Rogers and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.