The Biden administration on Friday issued a new environmental assessment of a controversial oil project on Alaska’s northern slope, but declined to reveal whether it was inclined to approve a project that has met with fierce opposition from environmentalists and has some Native Alaska residents worried that it would disrupt their livelihoods.
Climate activists worried after Biden published a review of the Alaska oil project
However, the draft environmental impact statement from the Bureau of Land Management evaluated various alternatives and did not express a preference. The alternatives included reducing the number of drilling sites – and not building anything at all – but environmentalists hailed the new assessment as another worrying step on the road to approval. A public comment period now follows, followed by a final decision.
“We are disappointed to see the BLM move forward with assessing the Willow Plan when it is so clearly inconsistent with the goals this administration has set itself to move away from fossil fuels and avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” said Jeremy Lieb, a lawyer. with Earthjustice, in a statement. “This single project, which will release a staggering amount of climate pollution, threatens to send us dangerously off track by undergoing urgent measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Willow, approved in the final year of the Trump administration, would bring hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, and between three to five drilling rigs, airstrips, a gravel pit and a large new processing plant, to the pristine tundra and wetlands of National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the largest block of public land in the country. There are only two drilling sites producing oil in the 23 million-acre reserve, both operated by ConocoPhillips.
A spokesman for ConocoPhillips said on Friday that it was committed to Willow because “it will supply much-needed energy to the United States, while serving as a strong example of environmentally and socially responsible development that provides comprehensive public benefits.”
Alaska’s political leaders have long supported the project as a way to boost North Slope’s oil production, which has been declining since the 1980s. With sky-high gas prices and supply disruptions due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has also faced increasing political pressure to increase production.
This Alaska village is facing catastrophic climate change and cannot stop with Big Oil
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) described the project as her “top priority” for the administration and said she wants to see construction begin this winter.
“Sustainably developed energy from Alaska benefits both our national security and American families facing almost record-breaking energy prices,” Murkowski said in a statement.
Following the approval at the end of 2020, the project was quickly challenged in court. Last year, a federal judge found that the government did not fully consider various project options or consider how burning the oil extracted from the ground would heat the planet. As part of that trial, the judge demanded that the Ministry of the Interior conduct an updated environmental review.
During the project’s three decades, Willow is estimated to generate 629 million barrels of oil – up from 586 million barrels in an earlier estimate.
The new review added more discussion about why climate change is a problem and the costs to society. It mentioned that the interior and northern areas of Alaska are expected to heat up by 10 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the 21st century, under a high-emission scenario.
The review estimated that the project would generate between 278 and 284 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, depending on which alternative is chosen. Environmental groups equated the previous project estimate of 260 million tonnes with the emissions produced by 66 coal plants.
“This is a huge project that they are now revealing is even bigger,” Lieb said in an interview. “Approving it is incompatible with what science says must happen and what this administration has committed to do to respond to climate change.”
ConocoPhillips officials have also told investors that the infrastructure built for Willow could eventually lock up to 3 billion barrels of oil. Drilling of fossil fuels and mining on public land already accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The Biden administration has sought a balancing act with its oil policy in Alaska.
Willow wanted to expand ConocoPhillips’ footprint further west across the northern slope, towards Lake Teshekpuk, the largest lake in the Alaskan Arctic.
In the nearest town of Nuiqsut, the oil industry is already a divisive issue. Some residents say the economic rewards have raised living standards far above other Native American villages, while others see the industry as a source of health problems and poor air quality. Many residents are still dependent on hunting and whaling for a living, and fear that more drilling pads and pipelines will push migrating caribou further from the village.
In March, natural gas began to leak from the ground at Alpine, a nearby ConocoPhillips facility. The leak caused ConocoPhillips to evacuate around 300 of its employees from the site and caused panic in Nuiqsut, which caused several families to flee the area. It has also made some residents feel increasingly concerned about a major expansion of the oil industry.