The Biden administration gave formal approval Monday for a huge oil drilling project in Alaska known as Willow, despite widespread opposition because of its likely environmental and climate impacts.
The president is also expected to announce sweeping restrictions on offshore oil leasing in the Arctic Ocean and across Alaska’s North Slope in an apparent effort to temper criticism over the Willow decision and, as one administration official put it, to form a “firewall” to limit future oil leases in the region. The Interior Department said it would issue new rules to block oil and gas leases on more than 13 million of the 23 million acres that form the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The drilling project would take place inside the petroleum reserve, which is located about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The reserve, which has no roads, is the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.
The restrictions, however, are unlikely to offset concerns that the $8 billion Willow project, led by oil giant ConocoPhillips, will have the potential to produce more than 600 million barrels of crude over 30 years.
Burning all that oil could release nearly 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. On an annual basis, that would translate into 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year. The United States, the second biggest polluter on the planet after China, emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
The president has been lobbied fiercely by the oil industry and Alaska lawmakers to approve the Willow project. Other supporters, including labor unions, building trades and some residents of the North Slope, have argued that the project would create about 2,500 jobs and generate as much as $17 billion in revenue for the federal government. Most Indigenous groups in Alaska, including the state’s first Alaska Native elected to Congress, Mary Peltola, also support it.
At the same time, environmental activists and the Native American community closest to the Willow site have fought the project through online campaigns, protests and meetings with federal officials, charging that approval of the project would be a betrayal of Mr. Biden’s pledge to move the nation away from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency has said that governments must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects if the planet is to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. [Continue reading…]