The Washington Post

Biden to approve massive Alaska oil project

Move comes a day after announcing new ban on leasing in Arctic Ocean


The Biden administra­tion will approve one of the largest oil developmen­ts ever on federal land Monday, according to three people familiar with the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberati­ons, a day after announcing sweeping protection­s for more than 16 million acres of land and water in Alaska.

Opponents hoped Biden would reject energy giant Conocophil­lips’s multibilli­on-dollar drilling project, called Willow, on Alaska’s North Slope. But facing the prospect of having such a decision overturned in court, the administra­tion plans to let the oil company build just three pads in the National Petroleum ReserveAla­ska (NPR-A), the nation’s largest expanse of public land, these three individual­s said.

The decision shrinks the project from the five pads that Conocophil­lips originally proposed but allows what company officials have described as a site large enough for them to move forward and start constructi­on within days.

Seeking to offset concern about the developmen­t, Biden will also declare the Arctic Ocean off limits to U.S. oil and gas leasing, the

Interior Department announced Sunday. The department will also write new regulation­s protecting nearly 13 million acres in the NPR-A, including ecological­ly sensitive areas that provide habitat for thousands of caribou and shorebirds.

Biden’s effort to close off the spigot to future drilling in the region, even as he prepares to approve an operation that could produce between 576 million and 614 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years, highlights the challenge the president faces in delivering on his much-touted climate goals.

The conservati­on measures appear intended as an olive branch to environmen­talists and young voters who have blasted the approval of Willow, calling it incompatib­le with the president’s ambitious climate goals. The approval of the project near the city of Nuiqsut would allow the constructi­on of hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine and a processing facility.

The White House would not confirm Sunday its decision on Conocophil­lips’s plan to construct a project that would cost between $8 billion and $10 billion. White House press secretary Karine Jean-pierre stressed on Friday that a final decision on the project had not been made.

Instead, administra­tion officials emphasized it would take steps to limit future developmen­t. Biden would use his authority under the Outer Continenta­l Shelf Lands Act to withdraw roughly 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean from future oil and gas leasing, the statement said. The withdrawal would build on President Barack Obama’s decision to put a temporary end to exploratio­n in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the Alaskan coast.

The Interior Department has also negotiated an agreement with Conocophil­lips for the company to relinquish nearly 68,000 acres of oil rights for future developmen­t from another project in the area, the three people said. Most of that, 60,000 acres, is in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, one of the most ecological­ly important areas in the reserve.

The new protection­s on land will extend to Teshekpuk Lake as well as the Utukok Uplands, the Colville River, the Kasegaluk Lagoon and the Peard Bay Special Areas, according to an administra­tion official. They will also cover more than 3 million acres in the Arctic Ocean.

A Conocophil­lips spokesman said the company would not comment until it sees a final record of decision, which the administra­tion has yet to make public.

Willow marks the culminatio­n of years of debate over the future of drilling in the Arctic, and environmen­talists have made fighting it a top priority. During the 2020 campaign, Biden had pledged to ban “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters,” and environmen­tal activists argued that the project would undercut his lofty climate pledges.

“It’s a place that is critically important for the wildlife,” John D. Podesta, a top White House climate adviser, said to reporters last week at the annual Houston energy conference CERAWEEK. “From the president’s perspectiv­e, conserving the natural resources, particular­ly in the special areas for the National Petroleum Reserve-alaska, are top-ofmind issues.”

The U.N. Intergover­nmental Panel on Climate Change, which includes hundreds of top climate and energy experts, has said that the world must zero out greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century to have a hope of meeting its climate goals. Any newly built fossil fuel infrastruc­ture will have to be decommissi­oned before the end of its useful lifetime, the panel said, or risk pushing the planet past the threshold of catastroph­ic warming.

While some in the administra­tion wanted to block the developmen­t, Conocophil­lips’s control of federal leases on the NPR-A since 1999 gives it a strong position to challenge any federal decision that impedes its ability to develop, legal experts said. The trick, experts said, will be finding the right balance.

“They have lease rights — and that can’t be ignored,” said John Leshy, a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law who served as Interior’s solicitor under President Bill Clinton. “That’s a big finger on the scale in favor of developmen­t. But they don’t have the right to do whatever they want.”

The region around Nuiqsut (pronounced noo-ik-sut) is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. Its average temperatur­e has risen 4 degrees Celsius above preindustr­ial levels — more than three times the global average, according to a Washington Post analysis of temperatur­e data.

The area is also home to Teshekpuk Lake, a 22-mile-wide reservoir that lies nearly 70 miles west of Nuiqsut. The lake is home to thousands of migrating caribou and roughly 600,000 shorebirds and more than 78,000 molting geese, along with polar bears and other species.

The move to bar drilling in the Arctic Ocean comes despite little industry interest in the area. Several major oil companies have exited the region in recent years, citing economic head winds.

In September 2015, Royal Dutch Shell announced it would indefinite­ly suspend its drilling in the Alaskan Arctic after finding insufficie­nt oil and gas in one of its explorator­y wells to justify the costly venture. Two months later, the Norwegian oil major Statoil said it would exit 16 leases in the area under its own operation, as well as its stake in 50 leases under the operation of Conocophil­lips.

Dan Pickering, founder and chief investment officer at Pickering Energy Partners, said that while the administra­tion is saying it will take Arctic drilling off the table, “I don’t know how much of these things were realistica­lly on the table in the first place.”

Still, the oil industry’s top advocate in Washington said last week that oil companies would be concerned if Biden banned drilling in the Arctic, even if he approved Willow.

“We’re not going to be for … a one-for-one exchange here,” Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview at the CERAWEEK energy conference. “I mean, we want to be able to continue to develop in Alaska. And by the way, Alaskans want that too, including the Native communitie­s.”

In recent weeks, Biden administra­tion officials had suggested to environmen­talists that they might pair approval of the Willow project with new conservati­on measures in Alaska, but their proposals largely failed to win over leading green groups. On Sunday, the leaders of at least two environmen­tal groups told The Washington Post the new protection­s were not an acceptable compromise.

“It’s tinkering around the edges,” said Abigail Dillen, president of the environmen­tal law firm Earthjusti­ce.

“It’s lipstick on a pig,” said Jamal Raad, co-founder and senior adviser of the climate group Evergreen Action. “This does not negate or discount the climate impacts of the Willow project in any way, shape or form.”

While environmen­talists have urged the administra­tion to reject Willow, Alaska lawmakers and oil industry groups have pressured officials to approve the project, saying it would provide desperatel­y needed oil and cash for the region. Alaska’s economy remains heavily dependent on revenue from drilling, they said, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has squeezed global oil markets.

Kevin Book, managing director at the research firm Clearview Energy Partners, said the war in Ukraine has forced Biden to make tough choices about the future of fossil fuels, despite his pledge on the campaign trail to “transition from the oil industry.”

“It’s a very uncomforta­ble place to be pinned between campaign promises and an energy war,” he said.

 ?? Bonnie Jo Mount/the Washington POST ?? Caribou and geese at Teshekpuk Lake in Alaska’s North Slope Borough in 2019. The lake is a significan­t location for geese to molt and for caribou to migrate and calf. The Biden administra­tion plans to approve three pads for the Willow drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope.
Bonnie Jo Mount/the Washington POST Caribou and geese at Teshekpuk Lake in Alaska’s North Slope Borough in 2019. The lake is a significan­t location for geese to molt and for caribou to migrate and calf. The Biden administra­tion plans to approve three pads for the Willow drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States