Biden administration approves Alaska’s Willow oil project, sparking anger from environmentalists

The United States has said that it is approving a major oil-drilling project on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope – a move that environmentalists say is counter to the country’s climate goals.

The decision by the Biden administration on ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, was revealed Monday. It comes a day after it had said it would bar or limit drilling in some other areas of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

The approval of the project by the Bureau of Land Management will allow three drill sites including up to 199 total wells. Two other drill sites proposed for the project will be denied. ConocoPhillips Chairman and CEO Ryan Lance called the order “the right decision for Alaska and our nation.”

US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland described Willow as “a difficult and complex issue that was inherited” from earlier administrations. And she added that officials “had limited decision space” to block the project because ConocoPhillips has held leases in the area for decades.

Haaland also defended the Biden administration’s record on climate change, saying, “I am confident that we are on the right path, even if it’s not always a straight line.”

A map of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.AP Photo

Climate activists were outraged that Biden approved the project, which they say puts his climate legacy at risk. Allowing the drilling plan to go forward marks a major breach of Biden’s campaign promise to stop new oil drilling on federal lands, they argued. 

The project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, according to the company — about 1.5% of total US oil production. Using the oil from Willow would produce the equivalent of more than 263 million tons of greenhouse gases over the project’s 30-year life, roughly the size of emissions from 1.7 million passenger cars over the same time period.

Monday’s announcement is not likely to be the last word, with litigation expected from environmental groups.

However, the project enjoys widespread political support in the state.

Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation met with Biden and his advisers in early March to plead their case for the project, and Alaska Native state lawmakers recently met with Haaland to urge support.

Lisa Murkowski, one of the supporters of the project, speaking to reporters.AP Photo

Supporters have called the project balanced and say communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow to invest in infrastructure and provide public services.

Alaska lawmaker Lisa Murkowski said Monday the decision was “very good news for the country.”

“Not only will this mean jobs and revenue for Alaska, it will be resources that are needed for the country and for our friends and allies,” Murkowski said. “The administration listened to Alaska voices. They listened to the delegation as we pressed the case for energy security and national security.”

According to ConocoPhillips, the project could create up to 2,500 jobs during construction and 300 long-term jobs, and generate billions of dollars in royalties and tax revenues for the federal, state and local governments.


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