Biden faces a dilemma in the fight over the big oil project in Alaska

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) – The Biden administration is weighing approval of a major oil project on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope, which supporters say represents an economic lifeline for indigenous communities in the region, but environmentalists say runs counter to President Joe Biden’s climate goals.

A decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, could come as early as March.

Q: What is the Willow Project?

A: The project can produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day, according to the company – about 1.5% of total US oil production. But in Alaska, Willow represents the largest oil field in decades. Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said the development could be “one of the largest, most important resource development projects in our state’s history.”

On average, about 499,700 barrels of oil per day flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline, well below the late 1980s peak of 2.1 million barrels.

ConocoPhillips Alaska had proposed five drilling sites as part of the project. The US Bureau of Land Management in early February identified up to three drilling sites initially as a preferred alternative, which ConocoPhillips Alaska said it considered a viable option. But the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the agency, took the unusual step of issuing a separate statement expressing “significant concerns” with the alternative and the project.

The alternative showed that extracting and using the oil from Willow would produce the equivalent of more than 278 million tons (306 million short tons) of greenhouse gases over the project’s 30-year life, roughly equivalent to the combined emissions of 2 million passenger cars in during the course of the project. same period of time. This would have a reduction of approx. 2% in emissions compared to ConocoPhillips’ preferred approach.

Q: Is there support for Willow?

A: It is there broad political support in Alaska, including from the bipartisan congressional delegation, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and state lawmakers. There is also “majority consensus” of support in the North Slope region, said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat group, whose members include leaders from much of the region. Supporters have called the project balanced, saying communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow to invest in infrastructure and provide public services.

Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, is a prominent opponent who is concerned about the impact on caribou and her residents’ way of life. But resistance there is not universal. The local Alaska Native Village Corporation has expressed support.

The US Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat who is Yup’ik, said there is “such a consensus in the region and across Alaska that this project is a good project.” She hoped to make the case to Biden that the project would create good-paying union jobs.

Ahtuangaruak said she feels like her voices are being drowned out.

Q. What is the policy of the decision?

Biden faces a dilemma that pits Alaska lawmakers against environmental groups and many Democrats in Congress who say the project is out of step with Biden’s goal of halve the CO2 emissions of the planet by 2030 and switch to clean energy. Approval of the project would represent a betrayal by Biden, who promised during the 2020 campaign to end new oil and gas drilling on federal lands, say environmentalists.

Biden has made fighting climate change a top priority and backed landmark legislation to accelerate the expansion of clean energy, such as wind and solar power, and move the US away from oil, coal and gas.

He is facing attacks from Republican lawmakers who blame Biden for gas price hikes that occurred after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Question: Did the Biden administration not support Willow?

A: In 2021, Justice Department lawyers defended in court an environmental study conducted under the Trump administration that approved the project. But a federal judge later found errors in the analysis, disregarding the approval and returning the case to the Land Management Agency for further work. That led to the review published in early February.

Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she was concerned the Biden administration would “try to have it both ways” by issuing an approval but including so many restrictions that it would make the project uneconomic.

Earthjustice, an environmental group, has encouraged project opponents to call the White House calling for Willow’s rejection.

Q: What about greenhouse gas emissions?

A: Federal officials under former President Donald Trump argued that increased domestic oil drilling would result in fewer net global emissions because it would reduce oil imports. American companies adhere to stricter environmental standards than in other countries, they argued.

After outside researchers rejected the claim and a federal judge agreed, The Home Department changed how it calculates emissions.

The most recent review, under the Biden administration, is facing backlash over its inclusion of a proposal that 50% of Willow’s net emissions could be offset, including by planting more trees on national forests to capture and store carbon dioxide. Reforestation work on federal lands was something the administration already planned and needed to meet its broader climate goals, said Michael Lazarus, a senior researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

“It does not help you to achieve a reduction target. It’s absurd,” said Lazarus, whose work was cited by the judge who overturned the Trump-era environmental assessment. “It does not address the fact that we are increasing global emissions by doing this project. … We are locking in emissions for 30 years into the future when we should be on a reduction plan.”

Q: What about Biden’s promises to limit oil drilling?

A: Biden suspended oil and gas lease sales after accession and promised to overhaul the government’s fossil fuel program.

The attorneys general of oil-producing states convinced a federal judge to lift the suspension — a decision later fallen by an appellate court. The administration ultimately dropped its opposition to leasing in a compromise over last year’s climate act. The measure requires the Interior Department to offer for sale tens of millions of acres of onshore and offshore leases before it can approve any renewable energy leases.

The number of new drilling permits for companies with federal leases increased in Biden’s first year as companies stockpiled drilling rights and officials said they were working through a backlog of applications from the Trump administration. Approvals fell sharply in the 2022 financial year.

The Biden administration has offered less land for lease than previous administrations. But environmentalists say the administration hasn’t done enough.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland declined to comment directly on Willow in a recent interview, but said “public lands belong to every American, not just one industry.”


Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this story.

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