Willow Project: Biden administration approves Alaska oil project



The Biden administration has approved a massive willow oil drilling project in Alaska, angering climate advocates and setting the stage for a court challenge.

The Willow Project is a decade-long oil drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve, owned by the federal government. The area where the project is planned contains 600 million barrels of oil, although it will take years for that oil to reach the market as the project is still under construction.

According to the administration’s own estimates, the project would produce enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of global-warming carbon pollution a year — the equivalent of putting 2 million gas-powered cars on the road.

The approval It’s a victory for Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation and a coalition of Alaska Native tribes and groups that hailed the drilling venture as a much-needed new source of revenue and jobs for the remote region.

“We finally did it, Willow is finally reauthorized, and we can almost literally feel the future of Alaska is bright because of it,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said in a statement. Alaska is now “in the thousands,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement. creating new jobs, billions of dollars in new revenue and “improving the quality of life on the North Slope and our state.”

But it’s a major setback for climate groups and Alaska Natives who oppose Willow, arguing the project would undermine the president’s ambitious climate goals and pose health and environmental risks.

The project has fueled an outpouring of online activism against it, including more than a million letters written to the White House in opposition to the project, and a Change.org petition With millions of signatures.

Environmental advocates are expected to challenge the project in court. Earth Justice, an environmental law group, is preparing a case against the project and intends to argue the Biden administration’s authority to protect resources on Alaska’s public lands, including reducing global-warming carbon pollution. There are steps involved, which the Willow Project will eventually incorporate.

Earth Justice President 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,” Dillon said. “We know that President Biden understands the existential threat of climate change, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals.”

Still, Alaska’s federal lawmakers applauded the decision, calling it a victory for the state.

“After years of persistent, determined advocacy for this project, from people across the state and from all walks of life, the Willow Project is finally moving forward,” Democratic Rep. said Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native in Congress. “I want to thank the president and his administration for listening to the voices of Alaskans when it mattered most.”

In recent weeks, the Biden administration considered reducing the number of approved drilling pads to two and promoting conservation measures to try to assuage climate and environmental groups’ concerns about the project.

But ConocoPhillips and Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation aggressively lobbied the Biden White House and the Interior Department for months to approve three drilling pads, saying the project wouldn’t be economically viable with two. .

The venture was eventually approved with three drilling pads. The administration felt it was legally limited and had few options to cancel or significantly scale back the project — which was initially approved by the Trump administration. Two government sources familiar with the approval told CNN that the administration has determined that legally, the courts would not have allowed them to cancel the project entirely.

Several oil drilling leases at the site were decades-long, which the administration felt gave ConocoPhillips few existing legal rights. Reducing the number of drill-pads to two would allow the company to drill about 70% of the oil they were initially seeking.

Still, the final scope of the project will cover 68,000 fewer acres than ConocoPhillips was initially asking for, the sources said.

“This was the right decision for Alaska and our country,” ConocoPhillips Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ryan Lance said in a statement. “Willow fits within the Biden administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security, all while creating good union jobs and benefiting Alaska Native communities. .”

Biden is also expected to announce sweeping new protections for federal lands and waters in Alaska with Willow’s endorsement on Monday.

Biden will declare the entire US Arctic Ocean off limits to future oil and gas leasing and announce new rules to protect more than 13 million acres in the federal National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska from drilling. In total, the administration would move to protect up to 16 million acres from future fossil fuel leasing.

These protections will extend to the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay Special Areas – places that are critical habitat for grizzly bears, polar bears, caribou and migratory birds. On Sunday, an administration official said the administration sees the new actions as a “firewall” against both future fossil fuel leasing and expansion of existing projects on the North Slope.

As he applauded the decision to approve the Willow project, Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, criticized the upcoming safeguards.

“The fact is that this willow [approval] The announcement of future legally questionable resource development restrictions on Alaska’s lands and waters comes with the announcement that the Biden administration’s unprecedented shutdown of our state will continue,” Sullivan said in a statement.

Environmental groups criticized the Biden administration for approving Willow, saying increased protections for other Arctic regions would not offset the project’s harm.

Tiernan Sittenfield, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, said the league was “very disappointed” by the decision, calling the project “dangerous” and “dirty.”

“This is in direct conflict with the Biden-Harris administration’s goals to cut climate pollution in half by 2030, and it is all the more important now that they redouble executive action that maximizes climate and conservation progress.” ,” Sittonfield said in a statement. “The new protections announced for the endangered Arctic are important, but they do not make for willow approval.”

Lena Moffitt, executive director of Evergreen Action, which advocates for stronger climate change policies, called the approval “an unacceptable departure from President Biden’s promises to the American people on 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” in the approval.

“This is the wrong decision for our climate future, to protect biodiversity, and to honor the frontline communities that have spoken out against this project,” said Kristen Miller, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, called the approval “disappointing.”

“The western Arctic is one of the last great wild landscapes on the planet,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Industrial development will not age well in this unprotected landscape.”

This story has been updated with more information.

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