By Lisa Friedman
The New York Times
WASHINGTON>> In one of its most consequential climate decisions, the Biden administration is planning to greenlight an enormous $8 billion oil drilling project in the North Slope of Alaska, according to two people familiar with the decision.
Alaska lawmakers and oil executives have put intense pressure on the White House to approve the project, citing President Joe Biden’s own calls for the industry to increase production amid volatile gas prices.
But the proposal to drill for oil also has galvanized young voters and climate activists, many of whom helped elect Biden and who would view the decision as a betrayal of the president’s promise that he would pivot the nation away from fossil fuels.
The approval, by the Interior Department, of the largest proposed oil project in the country would mark a turning point in the administration’s approach to fossil fuel development. The courts and Congress have forced Biden to back away from his campaign pledge of “no more drilling on federal lands, period” and sign off on some limited oil and gas leases. The Willow project would be one of the few oil developments that Biden has approved freely, without a court or a congressional mandate.
Although the decision still could be amended by Biden, it illustrates the tensions he faces as the urgency of climate change collides with the realities of the war in Ukraine and the instability it has created in global energy markets.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has championed the project, said Friday night that she had not been notified of the decision.
“We are not celebrating yet, not with this White House,” she said.
Environmental groups went into overdrive over the weekend as they tried to sway the administration to change course.
“Let us be clear: Willow has not yet been approved, and it is not an acceptable project,” said Karlin Itchoak, the Alaska senior regional director at The Wilderness Society, an environmental group. He called approval a “terrible, science-denying move.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that a final decision had not been made.
ConocoPhillips intends to build the Willow project inside the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23 million-acre area that is 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The reserve, which has no roads, is the country’s largest expanse of pristine land.
The administration reduced the number of drilling sites the company had requested, to three from five, said one of the people with knowledge of the discussions.
Still, Willow would be the largest new oil development in the United States, expected to pump out 600 million barrels of crude over 30 years. Burning all that oil could release nearly 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. On an annual basis, that would translate into 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to adding nearly 2 million cars to the roads each year. The United States, the second-biggest polluter on the planet, after China, emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Environmental activists, who have labeled the project a “carbon bomb,” have argued that the project would deepen America’s dependence on oil and gas at a time when the International Energy Agency said nations must stop permitting such projects — to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States, and temperatures there are expected to continue to increase by an average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the 30-year life of the Willow project, thawing the frozen Arctic tundra around the drilling rigs.
ConocoPhillips plans to install devices called thermosyphons in the thawing permafrost to keep it solid enough to support the heavy equipment needed to drill for oil — the burning of which will release carbon dioxide emissions that scientists say will worsen the ice melt.
The administration’s intention to approve the Willow project was first reported by Bloomberg. The decision has been one of the most difficult energy issues faced by the Biden administration, which has done more than any previous White House to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and boost wind, solar and other clean energy.
Political analysts said they see the move as part of Biden’s move to the center.
“Joe Biden is a realist about what it will take to win reelection in 2024 for him or any other Democrat,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. “Americans are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, from gasoline to heavy manufacturing, and any shortage or spike in prices will make voters nervous, especially in high driving swing states like Georgia, Arizona and Michigan. The Democrats narrowly escaped the full brunt of gas prices and inflation in 2022.”