The Biden administration on Monday gave final approval to a scaled-back version of a controversial fossil fuel drilling project on federal lands in the Alaskan Arctic — a move that drew immediate and fierce condemnation from environmentalists.
The so-called Willow project, led by oil giant ConocoPhillips, is expected to produce up to 590 million barrels of oil over its 30-year duration, and is conspicuously at odds with President Joe Biden’s pledge to transition the U.S. away from planet-warming fossil fuels.
The decision allows ConocoPhillips to develop three well pads in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, down from the five the company initially proposed. However, the environmental group Earthjustice noted that Monday’s decision still allows for the company to access 92% of the oil initially targeted.
“This is the wrong decision for our climate future, for protecting biodiversity, and for honoring the frontline communities who have raised their voices against this project,” Kristen Miller, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, a conservation group, said in a statement. “The Willow project is designed to open the door to the development of billions of barrels of oil over decades. Let’s be clear: rampant oil and gas development on our nation’s public lands must stop now.”
Environmentalists have described the Willow project as a “carbon bomb.” The government’s own review concluded that the project will result in the release of approximately 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually, the equivalent of adding 2 million gas-powered cars to America’s roads each year.
Ahead of Monday’s approval, the Biden administration unveiled new protections for millions of acres of land and water in the Alaskan Arctic.
Along with ending new oil and gas leasing across 2.8 million acres of the U.S. Arctic Ocean, the administration says it will propose stricter protections for the more than 13 million acres of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. The latter rule-making would “help protect subsistence uses in the NPR-A, responding to Alaska Native communities who have relied on the land, water, and wildlife to support their way of life for thousands of years,” the Interior Department said in a release.
Although welcome news for environmental and climate advocates, those actions did little to temper the outrage over Willow’s approval.
Karlin Itchoak, the Alaska senior regional director at the Wilderness Society, called the decision on Willow a “crushing step backward,” and vowed to continue fighting the project with “all means at our disposal.”
“This decision underscores that the Biden administration needs a climate plan for public lands,” Itchoak said in a statement. “It’s time for the administration to change the way it approaches drilling for oil on public lands if it has any hope of meeting its own climate commitments and leading on the kind of fundamental shift in energy policy that a livable future demands.”
On the campaign trail in March 2020, Biden famously promised to “take on the fossil fuel industry” and rapidly transition the nation away from planet-warming fossil fuels.
“No more subsidies for [the] fossil fuel industry,” he said at the time. “No more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period.”
But by signing off on Willow, Biden has locked in at least three decades of future drilling on federal lands in the fragile Alaskan Arctic — an area that is already experiencing rapid warming and associated climate effects.
Ryan Lance, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, called it “the right decision for Alaska and our nation.”
“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 providing benefits to Alaska Native communities,” Lance said in a statement.
The $8 billion project has been a top priority of Alaska’s congressional delegation, whose members say the project will provide a much-needed economic boost in the region.
“We finally did it, Willow is finally reapproved, and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement Monday. “After years of relentless advocacy, we are now on the cusp of creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues, improving quality of life on the North Slope and across our state, and adding vital energy to [the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System] to fuel the nation and the world.”