Biden administration approves massive Willow oil project in Alaska

By Nichola Groom and Valerie Volcovici

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration is approving a scaled-down version of ConocoPhillips’ $7 billion Willow oil and gas drilling project in Alaska, the US Department of the Interior said on Monday, drawing applause from Alaskan officials and the oil industry though criticism from environmentalists.

The decision follows an aggressive campaign in the eleventh hour by opponents who had argued that the development of the three drill sites in northwestern Alaska conflicted with President Joe Biden’s publicized efforts to combat climate change and switch to cleaner energy sources.

Alaska’s elected officials say the project will create hundreds of jobs and bring billions of dollars in revenue to the state and federal coffers. The state is heavily dependent on oil revenues, but production there has declined dramatically since its peak in the 1980s.

“I feel like the people of Alaska have been heard,” US Representative Mary Peltola, an Alaskan Democrat, said when speaking to reporters. “The state of Alaska cannot shoulder the burden of solving our global warming problems alone.”

The fate of the project has been closely watched as Biden seeks to balance his goals of decarbonizing the US economy and restoring US leadership on climate change, while increasing domestic fuel stocks to keep prices down.

The United Nations, which has urged nations to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, has criticized the move.

“These are not projects that move us in the right direction,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters when asked about Willow’s approval.

The Home Office approved the three-pad project after saying last month it was concerned about Willow’s greenhouse gas impact. ConocoPhillips had attempted to construct up to five drill sites and project infrastructure, including dozens of miles of roads and pipelines and seven bridges.

The agency said the smaller scope will reduce impacts on habitats for species like polar bears and loons.

The government also announced sweeping new protections for undisturbed lands and waters of Alaska late Sunday, keeping nearly 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean “closed indefinitely” to oil and gas leases, effectively closing off US Arctic waters to oil would exploration. It also granted protection for 13 million acres of “environmentally sensitive” special areas within Alaska’s oil field.

However, environmental groups have criticized the Biden administration, saying it is trying to “go both ways” on climate change.

“Fostering clean energy development is meaningless if we continue to allow corporations to plunder and pollute at will,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

Green groups have announced plans to challenge Willow in court. US Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said the congressional delegation expects an imminent legal challenge and is preparing an amicus brief to defend the project.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips welcomed Monday’s decision, having already approved the slimmed-down version of the project.

“This was the right decision for Alaska and our nation,” ConocoPhillips chief executive Ryan Lance said in a statement.

US Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaskan Republican, hailed the “good news” Monday, saying “it will mean jobs and revenue for Alaska” by pumping more than 180,000 barrels of oil a day into the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles and Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Toby Chopra; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Stephen Coates)


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