Energy & Environment

White House denies reports Biden has decided to sign off on controversial Alaska oil project

The Biden administration denied multiple media reports that it will announce its approval next week of a controversial Arctic oil drilling project long opposed by environmentalist and Native American groups.

CNN, The New York Times and Bloomberg reported on Friday that the Interior Department will officially give ConocoPhillips the nod to proceed with the Willow Project, an $8 billion endeavor that would be the single largest oil operation in the U.S., next week. A White House official denied the reports to The Hill, however, and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday that no final decision had been made.

The proposed site for the project is part of the National Petroleum Reserve in the northwest of the state, an area the oil company began the process of acquiring in the 1990s. It formally applied to develop the site in 2018.

The proposal has long been backed by Alaska lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Mary Peltola (D), who wrote a joint CNN op-ed last week calling on Biden to approve Willow. The lawmakers called the project the “most environmentally responsible choice” to meet immediate energy needs while transitioning to renewable fuels.

Murkowski also told the Times she had not been informed of any decision Friday, saying “we are not celebrating yet.”

However, environmental and native organizations have vocally opposed the project, calling it an environmental disaster in waiting and antithetical to the Biden administration’s decarbonization goals. A federal review of the proposal indicated that it could result in the release of just under 280 million metric tons in carbon emissions, the primary driver of climate change.

“If true, the Biden administration is betraying its core commitment to stop runaway climate change.  Conoco Phillips’ Willow project shocks the conscience.  It will open up the whole of the Western Arctic to drilling over many decades, devastating a fragile ecosystem and people who depend upon it,” Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said in a statement Friday. “We are out of time for massive fossil development. Now is the moment to harness unprecedented federal funding to transition the Alaskan economy rather than doubling down on oil. If the Biden administration makes the wrong call on Willow, it will matter globally both for emissions and leadership credibility.”

Meanwhile, representatives of Nuiqsut, the Native American village nearest the proposed site, blasted the public input process for the project as “deeply flawed” in January public comments to the Interior Department. In the comments, representatives claimed the Bureau of Land Management has managed the comment process in a way that stifles participation by opponents of the project, such as a 45-day window that coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

“Providing equal access to the decision-making process is a fundamental requirement of environmental justice, but the people of Nuiqsut, who would be most impacted by Willow, have had the least access to decision-makers in this process,” they wrote.

In January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order halting all new gas and oil leasing on federal lands. Since then, the administration has resumed leasing after the order suffered a series of court setbacks, although the reported Willow approval is unrelated to any court challenges.

Tags Biden Karine Jean-Pierre Lisa Murkowski Mary Peltola

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