Biden OKs controversial Alaska oil-drilling plan
WASHINGTON – The Biden administration said Monday it is approving a huge oil-drilling project on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope, a major environmental decision by President Joe Biden that drew quick condemnation as flying in the face of his pledges to slow climate change.
The announcement came a day after the administration, in a move in the other direction toward conservation, said it would bar or limit drilling in some other areas of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
The approval of Conoco-Phillips’ big Willow drilling 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.”
The Houston-based company will relinquish rights to about 68,000 acres of existing leases in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
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 say.
However, administration officials were concerned that ConocoPhillips’ decades-old leases limited the government’s legal ability to block the project and that courts might have ruled in the company’s favor.
Monday’s announcement is not likely to be the last word, with litigation expected from environmental groups.
The 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 said.
The project, located in the federally designated National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, enjoys widespread political support in the state. Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation met with Biden and his advisers this month to plead their case for the project, and Alaska Native state lawmakers recently met with In
terior Secretary Deb Haaland to urge support.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, 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.
Fellow Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said conditions attached to the project should not reduce Willow’s ability to produce up to 180,000 barrels of crude a day. But he said it was “infuriating” that Biden also had moved to prevent or limit oil drilling elsewhere in Alaska.
Environmental activists who have promoted a #StopWillow campaign on social media were fuming at the approval, which they called a betrayal.
“This decision greenlights 92% of proposed oil drilling (by ConocoPhllips) and hands over one the most fragile, intact ecosystems in the world to” the oil giant, said Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen.
Biden understands the existential threat of climate change, “but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals,” said Dillen.
John Leshy, a top Interior Department lawyer in the Clinton administration, said Biden’s climate goals aren’t the only factor in an environmental review process agencies must follow.
Leshy called the decision on Willow defensible, adding: “I think it reflects a balancing of the things ... which is the environmental impact and the lease rights that Conoco has.”
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 the BLM estimates would produce more than 239 million metric tons of greenhouse gases over the project’s 30-year life.