The Washington Post

Sweeteners for activists in Arctic oil discussion­s

Alaska approval may be paired with conservati­on plans, White House says


White House officials suggested to environmen­tal groups in recent days that they may pair approval for a controvers­ial Arctic oil project with new conservati­on measures in Alaska, but have failed to convince activists the idea is an acceptable compromise, according to three people involved in or briefed on the calls.

The high-stakes talks involve what some officials see as one of the most consequent­ial climate decisions of President Biden’s term, a multibilli­on-dollar drilling project called Willow. The administra­tion can announce a decision within days, and rejecting the project could lock the administra­tion into a costly legal challenge and alienate key Alaska lawmakers in Congress.

The compromise measures under discussion would include a new ban on drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s North Slope and more habitat protection­s for other parts of the state, said two of the people familiar with the talks, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidenti­al communicat­ions. They added that administra­tion officials are seriously considerin­g shrinking the Arctic project to just two approved drilling pads, a size so small that officials for Conocophil­lips — the company that has spent nearly five years pursuing federal approval — have suggested it would cause them to

back out.

Conocophil­lips has controlled leases in the National Petroleum Reserve-alaska awarded by the Interior Department since 1999, giving it a strong case if the federal government blocks its ability to develop, legal experts said. That has pushed the administra­tion to search for a compromise, hoping to curb backlash on a project that conservati­onists see as an irreversib­le catastroph­e.

So far, environmen­tal groups aren’t buying it. While President Warren G. Harding set aside the nearly 23 million-acre reserve a century ago to ensure that the U.S. Navy would have an adequate supply of oil, only a portion of it has been developed, and the expanse provides critical habitat for migrating caribou, waterfowl and other wildlife.

Many critics have focused on the proposal’s climate impact. The Biden administra­tion’s own environmen­tal review — released last month — estimated that Willow would generate roughly 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is equal to driving nearly 2 million gaspowered cars or burning nearly 51,000 rail cars’ worth of coal.

“Rejecting a project like Willow should be a no-brainer for a climate leader like Biden. And if he doesn’t, it’ ll be a stain on his legacy,” said Lena Moffitt, chief of staff at the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action. “No form of this project is okay.”

Based on its cost, Willow would be the largest pending oil developmen­t in the country, analysts say. The Bureau of Land Management’s final environmen­tal impact statement said the project could best go forward with three of the five well pads Conocophil­lips initially proposed. Now that the report is finished, the law allows the Interior Department to issue a final decision on permits as soon as this coming Monday.

A White House spokesman declined to comment Wednesday. Administra­tion officials have previously said publicly that the final decision would rest with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

But according to individual­s familiar with the process, White House officials have taken control of final deliberati­ons, struggling to figure out whether a scaled-back version of the project can appease both environmen­talists and Alaskan allies. The individual­s said the decision is primarily between approving the three well pads, or only two pads with a postponed decision on a third. State officials and Alaska Native groups have been lobbying the administra­tion to approve all three to avoid the risk of Conocophil­lips backing out.

On Monday and in February, White House officials outlined two possible options for prominent environmen­talists, suggesting the administra­tion may pair one of the options with the offshore drilling ban and other moves, the three individual­s said. Separately, White House senior adviser John D. Podesta had his own communicat­ions.

That is not enough for many environmen­tal groups involved in the talks, which have included Alaska Wilderness League, Earthjusti­ce and the Sierra Club, among others. They see Willow as a climate litmus test, and some say they won’t negotiate with the White House.

For the administra­tion, the politics are thorny. Environmen­tal groups helped deliver young voters in 2020 to Biden, who campaigned on a pledge to end new oil drilling on federal land. But the project’s supporters include other Biden allies — trade unions, many Alaska Natives and two key Alaskan politician­s — who say the project will boost the economy in a region that needs it.

While some While House climate officials argue the project should be blocked, many of Biden’s most senior advisers are wary, according to people familiar with deliberati­ons. They say that group includes Steve Ricchetti and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed. They fear the legal consequenc­es if their decision impedes developmen­t, or the political consequenc­es of moves that would undermine Republican moderate ally Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rep. Mary Peltola (DAlaska).

Company officials declined to say whether they might sue, noting that they would base their response on the details of the administra­tion’s final decision.

“We believe this project fits with 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,” company spokesman Dennis Nuss said in a statement. “We look forward to a timely Record of Decision to enable this project to move forward in service of the public interest.”

After years of planning and bureaucrat­ic wrangling over the Arctic petroleum reserve, Conocophil­lips initially received permits for Willow during the final year of the Trump administra­tion. The company’s plan for a 30-year project includes drilling on top of permafrost and constructi­ng a network of chilling tubes to keep it frozen even as the region warms.

Environmen­talists sued, and a federal judge blocked constructi­on permits in 2021 because the government failed to assess how burning the oil pulled from the ground there would warm the planet. Those groups have continued pushing allies in Congress and Biden to fight the project.

“The western Arctic is one of the world’s last truly intact landscapes with tens of millions of acres that are completely undevelope­d and that have only known subsistenc­e use,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said in a statement. “I would urge President Biden to ask himself what he thinks America will value more a century from now, a few barrels of oil that are already long gone, or the protection of one of the world’s truly great wildlife spectacles.”

The document the BLM released last month said that with hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines carving through often pristine wilderness, Conocophil­lips would need to shrink the footprint of its developmen­t by about 12 percent to protect a yellow-billed loon nesting site and caribou migration paths.

The Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, said it had “substantia­l concerns” about the environmen­tal impacts even from that smaller developmen­t. And its leaders have been researchin­g alternativ­es for the White House to consider.

That has led to an aggressive lobbying campaign from Murkowski and other Alaskan elected officials to persuade the White House to accept the three-pad option outlined in the review. She has made the project her top policy priority with the administra­tion and has considerab­le leverage, according to people who have been involved in deliberati­ons, because the White House officials see her as a rare Republican ally who has helped in getting nominees approved and tempering extremism in Congress.

The last year also brought Peltola into Congress in an upset election win, giving the Biden White House a rare Alaskan ally in a narrowly divided House. Since then she used her meetings with White House and Interior aides to lobby for Willow’s approval, arguing that her state needs the developmen­t to generate jobs and keep the state’s biggest oil pipeline functionin­g.

She also has requested another White House meeting before the final decision, and the entire delegation has been trying to amp up pressure on the White House as the decision nears.

“Our economy is in a true, real slump,” Peltola said in an interview last month, adding that the message hasn’t often persuaded administra­tion officials. “You can see by the expression and the body language that is not a factor in their decision-making. I get the impression that they perceive Alaska to be a rich state and that our economy’s dependence on [oil] is arcane and it should be shifted.”

As the shale boom helped grow oil production in other parts of the country and sink oil prices, it hurt oil production and economic growth in Alaska. From 2015 to 2021, the Alaskan economy performed “at or near the bottom” nationally in four key measures of economic health, according to a report released last year by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Developmen­t.

In recent weeks, several Alaska Native groups have also traveled to Washington for routine meetings that have often become about Willow and the state’s oil industry. Although some in the nearest town to Willow, Nuiqsut, are concerned about the project’s local impacts, many Alaska Natives stand to receive a slice of the revenue, which they say will help reduce poverty and boost generation­al wealth.

They have been handing out fliers showing that during the first 25 years of the modern Alaskan oil industry, starting in roughly 1980, life expectancy surged in the North Slope and other parts of Alaska far beyond other parts of the country.

One point they — and Alaska delegation members — have stressed is that Biden administra­tion officials should take Conoco-Phillips’s assessment seriously, and that it’s Alaska Natives who stand to lose out if a limited approval kills the project.

“Two pads is a denial of the project. … Then you’re denying all of the benefits,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, said after a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. Willow “means that we will be able to continue to live our Inupiat ways of life and the best possible means for generation­s to come, with all the benefits that are afforded to modern cities today.”

 ?? BONNIE JO MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Birds search for food near Teshekpuk Lake in North Slope Borough, Alaska, in 2019. Critics see a multibilli­on-dollar Arctic drilling project called Willow as a key climate test for President Biden.
BONNIE JO MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST Birds search for food near Teshekpuk Lake in North Slope Borough, Alaska, in 2019. Critics see a multibilli­on-dollar Arctic drilling project called Willow as a key climate test for President Biden.

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