Biden Administration Signals Support for Controversial Alaska Oil Project

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration took a key step toward approving a huge oil-drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, angering environmental activists who said allowing it to go ahead would make a mockery of the president’s climate change pledge. Joe Biden to end new oil leases.

The ConocoPhillips project, known as Willow and located in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, was initially approved under the Trump administration and later supported by the Biden administration, but was later blocked by a judge who said the environmental review had not considered enough its effects on climate change and wildlife.

On Friday, the Biden administration released a new environmental analysis.

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In that analysis, the Interior Department said the multibillion-dollar plan would at its peak produce more than 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day and emit at least 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifetime from burning the oil produced, as well as construction and drilling activity on the site.

The oil company’s plan calls for five drilling sites, a processing facility, hundreds of miles of pipeline, nearly 40 miles of new gravel roads, seven bridges, an airstrip and a gravel mine in a region that is home to bears. polar bears, caribou and migratory species. birds. Opponents of the project have argued that the development would harm wildlife and produce dangerous new levels of greenhouse gases.

In a statement, the Interior Department said the new analysis included several options, including a reduction in the number of drilling sites, as well as a “no action” option, or no drilling at all, and did not represent a final decision. about the Willow project. The agency will take public comment for 45 days and is likely to make a final decision later this year.

However, by simply publishing the analysis, the Biden administration signaled its support for the project, opponents said. Willow is a priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a moderate who is often the senator most likely to break with her party and support Democrat appointees and some political compromises.

Murkowski, in a statement, welcomed the move, calling it an “important announcement” and adding that he planned to hold the administration accountable for its commitment to carry out this additional environmental review so construction can begin this winter.

In a statement, ConocoPhillips said the Willow project “would create employment opportunities for union workers and contribute local tax revenue that will benefit communities in the North Slope, as well as significant state and federal tax revenue for years to come.”

The announcement comes as Biden seeks to show voters that he is working to increase domestic oil supplies as prices rise following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just last week, the administration opened the door to more offshore oil and gas leases in coastal waters over the next five years, all but ensuring significant new fossil fuel extraction.

As a candidate, however, Biden pledged to end the new federal oil and gas lease as he sought to reassure younger voters and others concerned that climate change would shift the country away from fossil fuels.

The burning of coal, oil and gas is responsible for the emission of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is causing dangerous increases in global temperatures.

“Totally furious that @DOI is one pro forma step away from approving the ConocoPhillips Willow project,” said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that strongly supports the Biden administration. she tweeted Friday night using the initials of the Department of the Interior.

“This oil and gas project will be a development hub for DECADES in a place where climate change is rapidly MELTING,” he wrote.

Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Arctic ecosystems are in disarray, sea ice is disappearing, sea levels are rising, and the ground is thawing. At one point, ConocoPhillips announced plans to install “chillers” in permafrost, which is melting due to climate change, to keep it solid enough to support oil-drilling equipment.

The federal judge who last year blocked the project, Sharon L. Gleason of the US District Court for Alaska, had sent the decision back to the government for redo. There was no deadline for the Biden administration to re-publish a new analysis.

The Willow project is in the northeastern part of the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, an area that the federal government has set aside for oil and gas development. The initial oil discovery in the Willow area was made by ConocoPhillips Alaska in 2017, and the company has said the project is expected to create more than 1,000 jobs during peak construction and more than 400 permanent jobs.

The new analysis includes an alternative that Interior Department officials say would reduce the potential size of the project by eliminating two of the five proposed drill sites, including removing the northernmost proposed drill site and associated infrastructure in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. important calving areas for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

That alternative produces only slightly fewer emissions (equivalent to 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the project’s 30-year life) than ConocoPhillips’ preferred plan. According to the analysis, the oil company’s plan would generate 284 million metric tons of emissions.

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