Energy & Environment

Biden administration proposes approval for major Alaska drilling project

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The Biden administration took a step toward approving a controversial project that would lock in oil and gas drilling in Alaska over a 30-year period.

The administration indicated it is likely to approve the Willow Project, a major ConocoPhillips endeavor that would produce up to 629 million total barrels of oil. 

The environmental impacts review released by the Interior Department on Wednesday said the project could result in 278,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the project’s 30-year lifespan. That’s the equivalent of driving 59,900 cars for a year.

prior draft review laid out a range of options for the project, but this step signals the department is proposing to approve the project. Final approval could be as soon as 30 days after this penultimate step.

Under the final environmental review, the Bureau of Land Management selected an alternative that would include three oil well pads where drilling would occur. The department said the option it ultimately selected intends to “reduce the amount of surface infrastructure” for the project and lessen impacts on caribou and other wildlife.

In a statement, the Interior Department said publication of the document and selected alternative “is not a decision about whether to approve the Willow Project.” It suggested its final decision could ultimately reject the project or defer some drill sites.

“The Department has substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final [supplemental environmental impact statement], including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence,” the department said.

Proposing to move ahead with the project has garnered both criticism and confusion from environmental advocates, who say the project locks in many more years of oil production when the world needs to switch to carbon-free fuel sources.

“We’re talking about 2060 here,” said Jenny Rowland-Shea, director for public lands at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, noting that the project is expected to take some time to come online. 

“That’s a long time for this to be in place at a time when scientists and the administration are urging that we need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels,” she added. 

Environmental advocates urged the administration to reverse course before issuing its final decision.

“Biden will be remembered for what he did to tackle the climate crisis, and as things stand today, it’s not too late for him to step up and pull the plug on this carbon bomb,” Earthjustice attorney Jeremy Lieb, who has challenged the project in court, said in a statement. 

He called the project “drastically out of step with the Biden administration’s goals to slash climate pollution and transition to clean energy.”

The administration’s move was not necessarily a surprise, as Biden administration lawyers in 2021 defended the Trump-era approval of the project. However, when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was a member of Congress, she signed onto a letter that was critical of the project. 

“Now is not the time to be fast tracking permitting for a massive new oil development project,” said a 2020 letter signed by Haaland and four other members of Congress. The lawmakers also urged the federal government to not “open additional acreage to new oil and gas projects.”

While the project was approved under the Trump administration in 2020, a court struck that down in 2021. 

Judge Sharon Gleason said at the time that the underlying environmental review for the project was inadequate, including the assessment of the project’s climate impacts. She axed the Trump administration’s approval of the project, and sent it back to the Biden administration for further study. 

ConocoPhillips said in a statement that it “welcomes” the administration’s proposal Wednesday.

“We believe Willow will benefit local communities and enhance American energy security while producing oil in an environmentally and socially responsible manner,” Erec Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, said in the statement. 

Isaacson added the company is “ready to begin construction immediately” once a final decision is issued. 

Updated: 12:43 p.m.

Tags Alaska Biden Conoco Phillips Deb Haaland Oil drilling Willow Project

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