After weeks of speculation, and White House denials over the weekend, the Interior Department on Monday formally approved the Willow Project, a 30-year effort by ConocoPhillips to drill oil in northwestern Alaska.
Here are five things to know about one of President Biden’s most controversial moves yet on environmental policy.
It could produce vast amounts of carbon emissions, at a time when the Biden administration is publicly committed to reducing them.
ConocoPhillips has projected the project’s output at around 180,000 barrels per day, the most productive Alaskan oilfield in decades. The administration estimates the project could produce enough oil to generate 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the primary cause of climate change, over 30 years.
Greenpeace has decried the project as a “carbon bomb,” while Sierra Club President Ben Jealous said in a statement Monday that “the carbon pollution it will spew into the air will have devastating effects for our communities, wildlife, and the climate.”
The approval comes after the Biden administration has set the most ambitious carbon emission reduction goals in U.S. history, a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Its shorter-term goals, meanwhile, call for cutting U.S. emissions by half compared to 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
New Arctic protections revealed
The administration announced new Alaskan protections just before the announcement.
Over the weekend, as rumors swirled that approval was imminent, the Interior Department announced a number of new protections for the Arctic separate from the Willow approval. The department on Sunday announced it would block 2.8 million acres in the region from oil and gas development and proposed protections for another 13 million acres of federal Alaskan land.
Tellingly, the Interior Department centered its actions to reduce the scope of the project as it made the approval official Monday, noting that it denied two of ConocoPhillips’s proposed drill site pads. The reduction, the department said, “significantly scale[s] back the Willow Project within the constraints of valid existing rights under decades-old leases issued by prior Administrations.”
Bipartisan support for the project
The administration faced bipartisan pressure from Alaskan lawmakers to approve the project.
Alaska’s state and federal lawmakers have been largely united in calling on the Biden administration to approve the project. Last week, Alaska’s entire congressional delegation — Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Dan Sullivan (R) and Rep. Mary Peltola (D) — co-authored an op-ed for CNN calling for the project to be approved.
“This should be an easy decision. The administration has made combating climate change a priority, while also acknowledging that the transition to cleaner energy will take time,” they wrote. “In the meantime, we need oil, and compared to the other countries we can source it from, we believe Willow is by far the most environmentally responsible choice.”
On Friday, after the approval was first reported, Peltola tweeted that it “seems like the Administration is taking Alaskans’ support for this project seriously.”
Murkowski, who has been a broadly moderate GOP senator but sharply critical of the Biden administration’s environmental and energy policies, criticized the administration’s failure to make the approval official Friday but praised the formal announcement.
“I thank the administration for listening to Alaskans, rejecting false claims meant to sink this project, and having the courage to make the right decision on Willow,” Murkowski said in a statement Monday.
Pushback from environmentalists
The Biden administration’s allies in the environmental movement are furious.
Environmentalist organizations have been broadly supportive of the administration’s energy policies since President Biden took office in 2021, particularly his decarbonization goals and promotion of renewable energy projects. But they uniformly expressed both disappointment and outrage over the weekend amid rumors of the approval and on Monday when it became official.
Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakas said in a statement that the approval “abandons the millions of young people who overwhelmingly came together to demand he stop the project and protect our futures.”
Center for American Progress Director of Public Lands Jenny Rowland-Shea called the approval a “mistake,” saying “the project is a climate disaster that benefits the oil industry at the cost of everyday Americans [and] puts the local community and the Native village of Nuiqsut at risk while threatening the sensitive Arctic environment.”
And advocacy groups aren’t the only critics — Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) also rebuked the approval, saying in a statement, “We should be doubling down on energy solutions that can rapidly provide Americans with cleaner and more affordable alternatives.”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has been one of the most vocal Senate Democrats on environmental issues, framed the approval as directly antithetical to the administration’s own accomplishments on the environment.
“The Biden administration’s decision to move forward with one of the largest oil development projects in decades sends the wrong message to our international partners, the climate and environmental justice movement, and young people who organized to get historic clean energy and climate investments into law last year,” he said in a statement.
A significant oil lease approval
The approval caps off over two years of intrigue relating to oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
Immediately upon taking office, Biden signed an executive order pausing all new oil and gas leasing on federal lands. The measure was praised by green groups as an indicator of his priorities, and blasted by Republicans and the energy industry. Eventually, however, the administration resumed lease sales amid a tangle of lawsuits and unfavorable court rulings, including the biggest offshore lease sale in history in the Gulf of Mexico in 2021.
The Willow Project will use leases that were largely secured before Biden took office. However, it represents one of the most significant approvals of such a project of his presidency, and signals a tack to the center despite the 2022 midterm elections, the most favorable for a president’s party in decades.