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Biden administration approves controversial Alaska oil drilling project

The Interior Department on Monday announced the approval of a modified version of oil giant ConocoPhillips' proposal to drill in the National Petroleum Reserve.
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The Biden administration on Monday gave the green light to a sprawling oil drilling project in Alaska, opening the nation's largest expanse of untouched land to energy production.

The multibillion-dollar project will be located inside the National Petroleum Reserve, about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and could produce nearly 600 million barrels of crude oil over the next 30 years, according to the Interior Department.

The department noted in announcing the approval that it reduced the scope of the plan, called the Willow Project, by denying two of the five drill sites proposed by ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest crude oil producer. The department estimated that the project could produce nearly a quarter of a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The project had received forceful pushback from environmentalists, who pointed to its potential climate and environmental effects. The Native American community closest to the site has also opposed the project, though others have supported it.

Image: An exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope in 2019.
An exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope in 2019.ConocoPhillips via AP file

The oil industry and Alaskan lawmakers had urged the president to approve the project for its energy production potential and its ability to create jobs.

“This was the right decision for Alaska and our nation,” said Ryan Lance, ConocoPhillips chairman and chief executive officer, in a news release.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a statement that she could almost “feel Alaska’s future brightening” after the administration’s announcement. ConocoPhillips estimated that the project could create more than 2,500 construction jobs and about 300 long-term jobs.

Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of Arctic Iñupiat, a nonprofit that addresses issues that affect the North Slope Iñupiat, praised the administration's decision, saying it will grow the tax base that supports the communities on the North Slope.

But Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the harm the project will cause "may not ever be able to be undone. This is the equivalent of putting dozens and dozens of coal-fired power plants back online. It makes it almost impossible to understand how the administration will ever meet its promises to reduce emissions from public lands."

A source familiar with the decision said that the Biden administration had little choice, faced with the prospect of legal action and costly fines. Administration lawyers determined that the courts would not have allowed Biden to reject the project outright, as ConocoPhillips has long held leases on land in the petroleum reserve and could have levied fines on the government, the source added.

The Interior Department announced Monday that ConocoPhillips would relinquish rights to about 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the petroleum reserve, most of which are close to the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a major habitat for caribou and other wildlife that Native communities rely on. On Sunday, the Biden administration declared about 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean as indefinitely off-limits for future oil and gas leasing. The Interior Department said it is also considering additional protections for more than 13 million acres within the reserve that have significant natural or historical value.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a champion of efforts to fight climate change, said the decision left an "oil stain" on the administration's climate record.

"Approval of the Willow Project is an environmental injustice," Markey said in a statement. "The Biden administration’s decision to move forward with one of the largest oil development projects in decades sends the wrong message to our international partners, the climate and environmental justice movement, and young people who organized to get historic clean energy and climate investments into law last year."

Jealous called the Willow decision a “profound break of trust” with the environmentalist movement and said it throws all of Biden’s promises into doubt. He said the Sierra Club is examining its legal options and will “very likely” sue the Biden administration to try to block the project.

On the campaign trail, Biden called for an end to drilling on federal lands.

The Bureau of Land Management was required to review the proposed Willow Project after a federal judge found flaws with the Trump administration's review prior to its approval of a project with five drill pads.