Bailing on an election promise to never again allow drilling on federal lands, United States President Joe Biden has approved a US$8-billion plan to extract 600 million barrels of oil from an ecologically sensitive region in Alaska.
“As a candidate, Joseph R. Biden promised voters worried about the warming planet, ‘No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period,’” writes the New York Times. But this week he blessed the Willow oil extraction project on pristine federal land in Alaska.
The brainchild of oil giant ConocoPhillips, Willow will be situated inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), a 95,506-square-kilometer expanse of land on the Alaska North Slope, roughly 320 kilometers from the Arctic Circle.
The NPR-A is America’s largest single expanse of pristine land, with not a single road in sight. But this will soon change. Approval of the project on the doorstep of the 500-member Inupiat hamlet of Nuiqsut will “allow the construction of hundreds of miles of roads” alongside “pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine, and a processing facility,” writes The Washington Post.
“Administration officials are moving ahead with the Willow project despite the fact its environmental analysis raised substantial concerns about emissions, danger to freshwater sources, and threats to migratory birds, caribou, whales, and other animals that inhabit the region,” wrote the Times in an earlier report.
The review also warned that melting permafrost could endanger the project’s infrastructure, reports Axios.
To minimize the fallout, the Biden administration cut the proposed project from five drilling sites to three, though these will still hold a whopping 199 wells. ConocoPhillips will also have to return 275 square kilometers of leases in the NPR-A to the government.
“The administration said it would put in place new protections for a nearby coastal wetland known as Teshekpuk Lake,” the Times said. “Those measures would effectively form a ‘firewall’ that would prevent the Willow project from expanding, the administration said.”
“One of the most ecologically important areas in the reserve,” the wetland is “home to thousands of migrating caribou and roughly 600,000 shorebirds and more than 78,000 molting geese, along with polar bears and other species,” writes the Post.
Warning of threats to Teshekpuk, and to the citizens of Nuiqsut, back in March 2019, Audubon Alaska described the wetland as “the primary annual calving ground for the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd, an estimated 40,000 animals.”
“The herd is one of the important wildlife species for the village of Nuiqsut, where over 90% of residents rely on subsistence resources.”
The Biden administration made a conciliatory move to designate about 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean off limits for future oil and gas leasing. But the Post writes that this bar to drilling comes “despite little industry interest in the area.”
“Several major oil companies have exited the region in recent years, citing economic head winds.”
The Interior Department has also pledged to issue new rules that would block further oil and gas leases on more than half of the NPR-A.
But none of these measures—some of which could be revoked by a future White House administration—have appeased the many groups opposing the project on grounds that it is a “carbon bomb,” reports the Times. Burning the 600 million barrels of oil expected from Willow would generate 280 million tonnes carbon dioxide, or 9.2 million tonnes of carbon pollution annually, “equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year.”
That makes the Willow approval a “major breach of trust,” especially for young voters, Sierra Club president Ben Jealous said. And Biden’s basket of climate-friendly announcements is “nothing more than window dressing.”
“If President Biden were sitting here I’d tell him don’t spit on us and tell us that it’s raining, Mr. President.”
Biden’s decision to move forward with Willow “abandons the millions of young people who overwhelmingly came together to demand he stop the project and protect our futures,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate advocacy group.
The criticism extended to a United Nations briefing room in New York, where a reporter asked whether Secretary-General António Guterres, who has spoken out passionately and repeatedly against new fossil fuel extraction in a climate emergency, would be commenting on Biden’s decision.
“Renewed investment in carbon energy is something the secretary-general has stood against, whether it happens in any country, including in the United States, in the Gulf—anywhere you want to see one,” replied spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric. “These are not projects that move us in the right direction.”
The Hill reports “majority consensus” across the North Slope in support of Willow, citing Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, whose members include leaders from much of the region. But Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak “has been outspoken in her opposition” to Willow.
“My constituents and community will bear the burden of this project with our health and our livelihoods,” she said.
The Times reported that Biden was “lobbied fiercely by the oil industry and Alaska lawmakers,” including the state’s first Alaska Native elected to Congress, Democrat Mary Peltola. “Other supporters, including labour unions, building trades, and some residents of the North Slope, have argued that the project would create about 2,500 jobs and generate as much as $17 billion in revenue for the federal government.”
Beyond intense lobbying, a “complicated legal landscape” left few choices for Biden, wrote the Times, attempting to explain what compelled him to jettison his ‘no drilling’ promise.
“ConocoPhillips has held leases to the prospective drilling site for more than two decades, and administration attorneys argued that refusing a permit would trigger a lawsuit that could cost the government as much as $5 billion.”
On the other hand, the climate damages of the Willow Project could run as high as US$79 billion, estimates Friends of the Earth. “Those climate costs far outweigh the project’s projected revenue of up to $17 billion,” writes Politico.
Arguing that the Biden administration had the legal authority to deny ConocoPhillips on environmental grounds, and should have done so, Earthjustice said it will launch an immediate lawsuit and “expects to be joined by several other organizations.”
But as the next U.S. election moves into sight, some speculate that Biden’s motives were explicitly political.
“I think the White House feels the president has strong climate credentials now, but that he does need to reach out to working class voters in swing states who care about gasoline prices,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate aide in the Clinton administration who now works at the Progressive Policy Institute.