The Biden administration approved the large-scale and controversial Willow drilling project for ConocoPhillips on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope on Monday.
The approval, although with some conditions, is one of President Joe Biden’s most consequential climate choices of his first administration.
It’s a blemish, say environmental groups, to a platform that so far has included major emissions-reduction pledges and a sweeping spending bill that rewards American households and businesses for swapping to electric vehicles or replacing oil- and gas-powered operations with solar, wind and other greener options.
But broadly speaking, earning permitting approval for energy needs and power-grid upgrades has been a slow process that has frustrated the private sector. Permitting can be equally slow for new sustainable-energy efforts, including wind and solar.
The official drilling approval comes a day after the administration, in what it hopes is viewed as keeping conservation considerations alive, said it would bar or limit drilling in some other areas of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
And, Willow is not likely a settled matter just yet. Court challenges are expected from environmental groups.
Among ‘most important’ drilling decisions in Alaska history
Biden’s Willow plan would allow three drill sites initially, which project developer ConocoPhillips
has said would include about 219 total wells. A fourth drill site proposed for the project was denied. The company has said it considers the three-site option workable. In return, ConocoPhillips will relinquish rights to about 68,000 acres of existing leases in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
According to ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s Willow project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil
a day, create up to 2,500 jobs during construction and 300 long-term jobs. Estimates predict billions of dollars in royalties and tax revenues tied to the project for federal, state and local governments, the company says.
The project, located in the federally designated National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, enjoys widespread political support in the state. Alaska Native state lawmakers recently met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to urge support for Willow.
Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation had met with Biden and his advisers in early March to plead their case for the project to proceed.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan had said the Willow project could be “one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in our state’s history.”
And other national Republicans have urged more U.S.-based fossil-fuel energy to help keep prices down for consumers and bolster U.S. power but cutting reliance on oil and gas
from the Middle East and Russia.
Climate activists say allowing oil company ConocoPhillips to move forward with the drilling plan also would break Biden’s campaign promise to stop new oil drilling on public lands.
Activists and younger voters especially had promoted a #StopWillow campaign on social media, an effort to remind Biden of his pledges to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions and promote clean energy. Biden has said the U.S. economy must halve its total greenhouse gas emissions as soon as 2030, on the way to net-zero emissions by 2050. It’s a pledge largely in line with those made by the rest of the industrialized world.
‘Disaster waiting to happen’
“The Willow project is a climate disaster waiting to happen that would devastate wildlife, lands, [Alaska] communities, and our climate. We need to speed our transition to clean energy, not double-down on oil and gas,” long-established environmental group The Sierra Club said in a tweet.
Christy Goldfuss, a former Obama White House official who now is a policy chief at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said she was “deeply disappointed” at Biden’s decision to approve Willow.
NRDC estimates the project will generate planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to more than 1 million homes.
Another advocate for climate change-fighting policy, Environment America, said that over the 30 years the Willow project is expected to operate, it would produce 600 million barrels of oil , the equivalent of 76 new coal-fired power plants.
“ NRDC estimates the Willow project will generate planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to more than 1 million homes. ”
Anticipating that reaction among environmental groups, the White House announced on Sunday that Biden will prevent or limit oil drilling in 16 million acres in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean. The plan would bar drilling in nearly 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea — closing it off from oil exploration — and limit drilling in more than 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve.
The withdrawal of the offshore area ensures that important habitat for whales, seals, polar bears and other wildlife “will be protected in perpetuity from extractive development,″ the White House said in a statement.
The conservation actions announced Sunday complete protections for the entire Beaufort Sea Planning Area, building upon President Barack Obama’s 2016 action on the Chukchi Sea Planning Area and the majority of the Beaufort Sea, the White House said.
Separately, the administration moved to protect more than 13 million acres within the petroleum reserve, a 23-million acre chunk of land on Alaska’s North Slope set aside a century ago for future oil production.
The Willow project is within the reserve, and ConocoPhillips has long held leases for the site. About half the reserve is off limits to oil and gas leasing under an Obama-era rule reinstated by the Biden administration last year.
Areas to be protected include the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay Special Areas, collectively known for their globally significant habitat for grizzly and polar bears, caribou and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.
“The Willow Project would disrupt this delicately balanced ecosystem with the construction of drill sites, bridges, an airstrip, hundreds of miles of roads and a gravel mine,” said Wendy Wendlandt, president of policy group Environment America, in a letter to its membership.
“It would be a loss for the majestic caribou, polar bears and more that call this region home. It would be a loss for our climate,” Wendlandt said. “The Arctic is already warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, and the Willow Project would be a carbon bomb.”
City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 Indigenous people is closest to the proposed development, has been outspoken in her opposition, worried about impacts to caribou and her residents’ subsistence lifestyles. The Naqsragmiut Tribal Council, in another North Slope community, also raised concerns with the project.
The Associated Press contributed.