Biden Administration to Approve Willow Oil Project in Alaska, Officials Say
Biden is also expected to put broad new limits on Arctic drilling in an apparent effort to temper criticism over the $8 billion Willow oil project, which has faced sharp climate opposition.
The Biden administration on Monday will formally approve a huge oil drilling project in Alaska known as Willow, according to two people familiar with the decision, despite widespread opposition because of its likely environmental and climate impacts.
The president will also impose 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 also is expected to issue new rules to protect more than 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska from oil and gas leasing.
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 drilling project, which will take place inside the petroleum reserve. 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.
At the same time, environmental activists and some Native American communities 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 haven’t yet seen a written decision and declined to comment until one had been made official.
Climate activists said that they were pleased the president plans to protect the Arctic but remained outraged that Mr. Biden, who has made fighting climate change a top priority, 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.”
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The decision is sure to invite legal challenges from environmental groups.
The Biden administration intends to 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, according to two people familiar with the decision who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the announcement. The administration also will deny a road that would have led to the fourth drilling site, the two people said.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Willow decision beyond referring to remarks by Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, on Friday that a final decision hadn’t been made.
Administration officials are moving ahead with the Willow project despite 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 has 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.
ConocoPhillips had initially sought five drilling sites for the project and had called the approval of three pads the minimum number that they would find acceptable. The company had indicated that it would back out if there were fewer, saying the project would no longer be financially viable.
In addition to rejecting two of the proposed drilling sites, the people familiar with the decision said the administration also will announce that ConocoPhillips will return about 67,000 acres of land back to the government. The petroleum reserve, located about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.
The cornerstone of Mr. Biden’s new Arctic environmental pledges, which he is expected to detail on Monday, will be 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 will 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.
In addition to the ban on new Arctic drilling, the Interior Department will issue rules to protect more than 13 million of the 23 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska from oil and gas leasing.
Mr. Biden also will announce 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.