Biden approves massive offshore oil project in Alaska, moves to bar future drilling in Arctic Ocean

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Monday approved the controversial Willow oil project, clearing the way for one of the largest new oil and gas developments in Alaska in 20 years despite fierce opposition from environmental activists. 

The move came as Biden also signaled sweeping future action to bar offshore drilling on 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean in an appeal to critics who said the president betrayed his commitment to fight climate change. 

The $8 billion Willow project, planned by Houston-based petroleum company ConocoPhillips, marks a shift in the Biden administration’s handling of major fossil fuel projects after previously approving few without congressional or court intervention.

What has been approved?

  • Location: The Willow project is targeted for land within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an approximately 23-million-acre area on the Beaufort Sea north of the Arctic Circle, about 200 miles west of the existing oilfields at Prudhoe Bay. 
  • Three of five drilling sites OK’d: The Interior Department approved three of five drilling sites proposed by ConocoPhillips. Denying the two others reduced the original size of the 200-well project by about 40% and eliminated 11 miles of roads, 20 miles of pipelines and 133 acres of gravel that would have been required.
  • Company forfeits 68,000 acres: The company agreed to relinquish 68,000 acres of existing leases in the National Petroleum reserve-Alaska, reducing its footprint in the reserve by one-third. 
  • Environmental ‘buffer’: These steps will create “a buffer” between oil development activities and migration routes for caribou in the area, Interior Department officials said.
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.

What is Biden doing to protect the Arctic?

  • 13 million acres blocked: In anticipation of a backlash from climate activists, the Biden administration on Sunday proposed rules to block future oil and gas leases within more than 13 million acres of the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
  • Globally significant habitat: The rule would block oil and gas leasing in areas collectively known for their globally significant habitat for wildlife, according to Interior Department officials, including lands occupied by grizzly and polar bears, caribou and migratory birds.
  • Arctic Ocean ban: Biden’s action to indefinitely bar future offshore drilling on 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean will complete protections for the entire Beaufort Sea, building upon protections made during the Obama administration. 

Why Biden didn’t block the project, according to the White House

The Biden administration was limited by legal restraints in reviewing the Willow project’s application, according to a White House official, who argued the company had valid rights on the land because of decades-old leases.

The administration was convinced the courts would have blocked an outright rejection of the Willow project and could impose fines on the government, said the official, who spoke about the White House’s thinking on the condition of anonymity. 

US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One on March 13, 2023 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. - President Biden is travelling to San Diego, California, to attend the AUKUS summit with his British and Australian counterparts. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images) ORIG FILE ID: AFP_33B986C.jpg

#StopWillow climate activists blast Biden

The approval of the Willow project was met with swift criticism by environmental activists, who had rallied under a #StopWillow hashtag on social media to try to halt the project.

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, called Biden’s action’s “appalling” and vowed to continue fighting to keep Willow from breaking ground.

“People and wildlife will suffer, and extracting and burning more fossil fuel will warm the climate even faster,” Monsell said. “Biden has no excuse for letting this project go forward in any form.”

Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, accused the Biden administration of “betraying its core commitment” of ending runaway climate change.  

“ConocoPhillips’ Willow project shocks the conscience,” Dillen said. “It will open up the whole of the Western Arctic to drilling over many decades, devastating a fragile ecosystem and people who depend upon it.”

Mixed reviews by fossil fuel industry

The fossil fuel industry applauded Biden for signing off on Willow but criticized the Arctic protections. 

Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy at the American Petroleum Institute, said the new rules on offshore drilling send “mixed signals” on energy policy.

“By imposing these restrictions, the Department of the Interior appears to be treating their statutory obligations as a bargaining chip,” Macchiarola said. He called on the Biden administration to focus instead on “real solutions” to deliver energy and cut down on emissions. 

Contributing: Associated Press

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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