The Commercial Appeal

Biden OKS Alaska drilling plan

Environmen­tal groups oppose Willow program

- Matthew Daly and Chris Megerian

WASHINGTON – The Biden administra­tion said Monday it is approving the major Willow oil project on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope, one of President Joe Biden’s most consequent­ial climate choices that is drawing condemnati­on from environmen­talists who say it flies in the face of the Democratic president’s pledges.

The announceme­nt comes a day after the administra­tion, in a big conservati­on move, said it would bar or limit drilling in some other areas of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

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 would be denied. The company has said it considers the three-site option workable.

Houston-based Conocophil­lips will relinquish rights to about 68,000 acres of existing leases in the National Petroleum Reserve-alaska.

Climate activists have been outraged that Biden appeared open to greenlight­ing the project, which they said put Biden’s climate legacy at risk. Allowing Conocophil­lips to move forward with the drilling plan also would break Biden’s campaign promise to stop new oil drilling on public lands, they say.

The administra­tion’s decision is not likely to be the last word, with litigation expected from environmen­tal groups.

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, and generate billions of dollars in royalties and tax revenues for the 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.

But environmen­tal activists have promoted a #Stopwillow campaign on social media, seeking to remind Biden of his pledges to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions and promote clean energy.

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, which NRDC estimates would generate planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to more than 1 million homes.

“This decision is bad for the climate, bad for the environmen­t and bad for the Native Alaska communitie­s who oppose this and feel their voices were not heard,” Goldfuss said.

Anticipati­ng that reaction among environmen­tal groups, the White House announced on Sunday that Biden will prevent or limit oil drilling on 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 on 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 U.S. Bureau of Land Management, as part of an environmen­tal review, advanced in February a developmen­t option for Willow calling for up to three drill sites initially, which it said would include about 219 total wells. Conocophil­lips Alaska said it considered that option workable.

Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators warned any further limits could kill the project, rendering it uneconomic.

Alaska’s bipartisan congressio­nal delegation met with Biden and his advisers in early March to plead their case for the project, while environmen­tal groups rallied opposition and urged project opponents to place pressure on the administra­tion.

City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaru­ak, whose community of about 525 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.

But there is “majority consensus” in the North Slope region supporting the project, said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, whose members include leaders from across much of that region.

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.

Abigail Dillen, president of the environmen­tal group Earthjusti­ce, welcomed the new conservati­on plan, but said if the Biden administra­tion believes it has authority to limit oil developmen­t in the petroleum reserve, officials should extend those protection­s to the Willow site. “They have the authority to block Willow,” she said in an interview Sunday.

 ?? CONOCOPHIL­LIPS VIA AP FILE ?? An aerial photo from 2019 shows an explorator­y drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope.
CONOCOPHIL­LIPS VIA AP FILE An aerial photo from 2019 shows an explorator­y drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope.
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