Alaska’s Willow oil project is controversial. Here’s why.

March 14, 2023 GMT
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FILE - This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope. The Biden administration is weighing approval of a major oil project on Alaska's petroleum-rich North Slope that supporters say represents an economic lifeline for Indigenous communities in the region but environmentalists say is counter to Biden's climate goals. A decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska's Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, could come by early March 2023. (ConocoPhillips via AP, File)
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FILE - This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope. The Biden administration is weighing approval of a major oil project on Alaska's petroleum-rich North Slope that supporters say represents an economic lifeline for Indigenous communities in the region but environmentalists say is counter to Biden's climate goals. A decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska's Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, could come by early March 2023. (ConocoPhillips via AP, File)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Biden administration is approving a major oil project on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope that supporters say represents an economic lifeline for Indigenous communities in the region but environmentalists say is counter to President Joe Biden’s climate goals.

The decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, was revealed Monday.

WHAT IS THE WILLOW PROJECT?

The project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, according to the company — about 1.5% of total U.S. oil production. Willow is currently the largest proposed oil project on U.S. public land. Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said the development could be “one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in our state’s history.”

So far this year, around 498,000 barrels of oil a day have flowed through the trans-Alaska pipeline, well below the late-1980s peak of 2.1 million barrels.

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ConocoPhillips Alaska had proposed five drilling sites as part of the project. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved three, which it said would include up to 199 total wells. ConocoPhillips Alaska said it welcomed Monday’s decision.

The company also agreed to give up rights to about 68,000 acres (27,500 hectares) in existing leases within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where Willow is located. The action reduces the project’s freshwater use and eliminates all infrastructure related to the two rejected drill sites, including approximately 11 miles (18 kilometers) of roads, 20 miles (32 kilometers) of pipelines and 133 acres (54 hectares) of gravel, all of which reduces potential impacts to caribou migration and subsistence users, the U.S. Interior Department said.

Using the oil from Willow would produce the equivalent of more 263 million tons (239 million metric tons) of greenhouse gases over the project’s 30-year life, roughly equal to the combined emissions from 1.7 million passenger cars over the same time period. It would have a roughly 8% reduction in emissions compared with Houston-based ConocoPhillips’ favored approach.

IS THERE SUPPORT FOR WILLOW?

There is widespread political support in Alaska, including from the bipartisan congressional delegation, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and state lawmakers.

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There also is “majority consensus” in support in the North Slope region, said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, whose members include leaders from across much of that region. Supporters have called the project balanced and say communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow to invest in infrastructure and provide public services.

City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, is a prominent opponent who is worried about impacts on caribou and her residents’ subsistence lifestyles. But opposition there isn’t universal. The local Alaska Native village corporation has expressed support.

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“Today, the people of Alaska were heard,” said U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat who also is Yup’ik. “After years of consistent, determined advocacy for this project, from people all across the state and from every walk of life, the Willow Project is finally moving forward.”

Ahtuangaruak had said that she felt that voices like hers were being drowned out.

WHAT ARE THE POLITICS OF THE DECISION?

Biden’s decision pits Alaska lawmakers against environmental groups and many Democrats in Congress who say the project is out of step with his goals to slash planet-warming carbon emissions in half by 2030 and move to clean energy. Environmentalists say approval of the project represents a betrayal by Biden, who promised during the 2020 campaign to end new oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Environmentalist groups had urged the project’s rejection.

Biden has made fighting climate change a top priority and backed a landmark law to accelerate expansion of clean energy such as wind and solar power and move the U.S. away from the oil, coal and gas.

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He has faced attacks from Republican lawmakers who blame him for gasoline price spikes that occurred after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

DID THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION SUPPORT WILLOW EARLY ON?

Justice Department attorneys in 2021 defended in court an environmental review conducted during the Trump administration that approved the project. A federal judge later found flaws with the analysis, setting aside the approval and returning the matter to the land management agency for further work. That led to the review released last month that laid the groundwork for Monday’s announcement.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said the decision will not only “mean jobs and revenue for Alaska, it will be resources that are needed for the country and for our friends and allies. The administration listened to Alaska voices. They listened to the delegation as we pressed the case for energy security and national security.”

WHAT ABOUT GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS?

Federal officials under former President Donald Trump claimed increased domestic oil drilling would result in fewer net global emissions because it would decrease petroleum imports. U.S. companies adhere to stricter environmental standards than those in other countries, they argued.

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After outside scientists rejected the claim and a federal judge agreed, the Interior Department changed how it calculates emissions.

The latest review, under the Biden administration, received pushback over its inclusion of a suggestion that 50% of Willow’s net emissions could be offset, including by planting more trees on national forests to capture and store carbon dioxide. Reforestation work on federal lands was something the administration already planned and needed to meet its broader climate goals. The reforestation proposal was dropped from the final decision.

The Willow project “is about producing oil for decades when the U.S. needs to be on a steep reduction path,” said Michael Lazarus, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “I see the political pressure the administration is under, but the science doesn’t change.”

WHAT ABOUT BIDEN’S PROMISES TO CURTAIL OIL DRILLING?

Biden suspended oil and gas lease sales after taking office and promised to overhaul the government’s fossil fuels program.

Attorneys general from oil-producing states convinced a federal judge to lift the suspension -- a ruling later overturned by an appeals court. The administration ultimately dropped its resistance to leasing in a compromise over last year’s climate law. The measure requires the Interior Department to offer for sale tens of millions of acres of onshore and offshore leases before it can approve any renewable energy leases.

The number of new drilling permits to companies with federal leases spiked in Biden’s first year as companies stockpiled drilling rights and officials said they were working through a backlog of applications from the Trump administration. Approvals dropped sharply in fiscal year 2022.

The Biden administration has offered less acreage for lease than previous administrations. But environmentalists say the administration hasn’t done enough.

The decision on Willow, one of the most significant of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s tenure, was signed by her deputy, Tommy Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska and briefed state lawmakers on the project Monday.

Haaland referred to the project in a video statement on Twitter as a “difficult and complex issue” involving leases issued by prior administrations.

“As a result, we had limited decision space, but we focused on how to reduce the project’s footprint and minimize its impacts to people and to wildlife,” said Haaland, who had opposed Willow as a New Mexico congresswoman before becoming Interior secretary.

WHAT OTHER ACTIONS IS THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION TAKING?

On Sunday, the administration announced that Biden would indefinitely place off limits to future oil and gas leasing nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of the Arctic Ocean and impose new protections in the petroleum reserve. The withdrawal of the offshore area ensures that important habitat for whales, seals, polar bears and other wildlife “will be protected in perpetuity from extractive development,″ the White House said in a statement.

The action completes protections for the entire Beaufort Sea Planning Area, building upon former President Barack Obama’s 2016 withdrawal of the Chukchi Sea Planning Area and the majority of the Beaufort Sea, the White House said.

The Biden administration also said it plans to consider additional protections for the more than 13 million acres (5.3 million hectares) within the petroleum reserve that are designated as special areas for their wildlife, subsistence, scenic or other values. Details weren’t immediately clear. The administration said it would make available the proposed rule for public comment in the coming months.

The Interior Department limited oil and gas leasing in a 2022 decision to 11.8 million of the roughly 23-million-acre (4.8 million of the roughly 9.3-million-hectare) National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and designated the remaining roughly 11 million acres (4.5 million hectares) as closed to leasing.

The petroleum reserve on Alaska’s North Slope was set aside a century ago for future oil production.

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Brown reported from Billings, Mont., and Daly reported from Washington.