Biden administration signals support for controversial Alaska oil project

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has taken a key step toward approving a massive oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, angering environmental activists who say allowing it to go from before would ridicule President Biden’s pledge on climate change to end new oil leases.

The ConocoPhillips project, known as Willow and located in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, was originally approved under the Trump administration and later backed by the Biden administration, but was later blocked by a judge who said the environmental review did not sufficiently consider its effects on climate change and wildlife.

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

In that analysis, the Interior Department said the multi-billion dollar plan would produce at its peak more than 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day and emit at least 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. during its lifetime due to the combustion of the oil produced, as well as construction and drilling activities on the site.

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

In a statement, the Home Office 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 on the Willow project. The agency will receive public comments for 45 days and is expected to make a final decision later this year.

Yet just by releasing the analysis, the Biden administration signaled support for the project, opponents said. Willow is a priority for Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate Republican who is often the senator most likely to break with her party and support Democratic nominations and certain political compromises.

Murkowski, in a statement, welcomed the move, calling it a “major announcement” and adding that she plans to hold the administration “accountable to its commitment to complete 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 to local tax revenue that benefits North Slope communities, as well as significant federal and state tax revenue during many years”.

The announcement comes as Mr Biden seeks to show voters that he is working to increase domestic oil supply as prices rise in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Just last week, the administration opened the door to more offshore oil and gas concessions in coastal waters over the next five years, virtually guaranteeing significant new fossil fuel extraction.

Yet as a candidate, President Biden pledged to end the new federal oil and gas lease as he sought to assure young voters and others concerned about climate change that he would hijack the land of fossil fuels.

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

“Totally furious that @DOI is one proforma step away from approving the ConocoPhillips Willow project,” 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, wrote on Twitter late Friday using the initials of the Interior Department.

“This oil and gas project will be a hub for development for DECADES in a place where climate change is rapidly DOING,” she 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 the permafrost – which is melting due to climate change – to keep it strong enough to support oil drilling equipment.

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

The Willow Project is located in the northeast portion of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, an area 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 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 a new alternative that Home Office officials say would reduce the potential size of the project by removing two of the five proposed drilling sites, including eliminating the northernmost proposed drilling site and associated infrastructure in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Zone. , an important calving ground for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

This alternative produces only slightly fewer emissions — 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions over the project’s 30-year lifespan — than ConocoPhillips’ preferred plan. According to the analysis, the oil company’s plan would create 284 million metric tons of emissions.

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