The Biden administration is facing a major test for its climate agenda in the Alaskan Arctic, where an oil company is proposing a 30-year development that would pump more than half-a-billion barrels of petroleum from a fragile and rapidly-warming ecosystem.
Climate advocates say the Willow project, planned by ConocoPhillips, is incompatible with President Joe Biden’s goal of setting the nation on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050, and are calling on him to reject the proposal.
While Willow was approved in the final months of the Trump administration and was initially defended by the current administration, a federal judge in Alaska vacated the project’s approvals in August, sending it back to the approving agencies for review.
“We’ve been clear from the beginning that it’s an unacceptable project,” said Jeremy Lieb, a senior associate attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that represented advocates in one of two lawsuits that led to the August ruling.
Because the Arctic is warming so rapidly, and because Willow would produce oil for decades, ConocoPhillips has proposed installing “chillers” underground to fend off increased thawing in the permafrost that would undergird the project’s roads, pipelines and processing plant.
“We can’t afford to burn the oil that it will produce, and it will have really serious consequences for the people, wildlife and landscape where it will be built,” Lieb added. “Allowing it to move forward really is not consistent with what this administration has promised on climate, environment and just general, science-based decision making.”
After taking office with a bold promise to halt new oil and gas development on federal lands, Biden has struggled to balance his long-term goal of phasing out fossil fuels with pressure from industry and Republicans to continue with business as usual. Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline in one of his first official acts, but allowed the replacement and expansion of the Line 3 project months later. His Interior Department initially suspended all new leasing on federal lands, but that policy was blocked by a lawsuit. The administration then opened up more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico in a lease sale.
In Alaska, Biden last year suspended oil and gas activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an undeveloped land that has long been off limits to energy development, but which was opened up as part of the Republican tax legislation enacted in 2017. But the administration also supported the Willow project in the lawsuits brought by activists, though it declined to appeal the judge’s August ruling.
This month, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, said it would revert to an Obama-era management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a 23 million acre swath on the North Slope, parts of which have been open to drilling for decades and which includes the proposed Willow project. The Trump administration had adopted a new management plan that would have opened more than 80 percent of the land to oil and gas development. The plan that BLM will now revert to would allow drilling on about half the reserve.
Environmental advocates welcomed the move, which does not affect whether Willow proceeds.
Willow has powerful supporters, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican, who has pressed the Biden administration to allow the project to proceed. Oil production provides important revenue to the state but has been on the decline for years. The Willow project could produce up to 130,000 barrels per day at its peak, or nearly 30 percent of current production statewide. Murkowski is one of the few Republican senators who has expressed some level of support for climate legislation, so is a possible ally for the president in Congress as he looks to salvage his domestic agenda.
In a written response to questions, Richard Packer, a BLM spokesman, said that the bureau was conducting outreach with tribes, Alaska Native corporations and environmental organizations to complete a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for the Willow project that it expects to release “in the coming months.”
While the Biden administration could try to strike a compromise by limiting the Willow project’s scope or imposing additional environmental protections, some environmental advocates say anything but a complete denial of the project would be a betrayal.
Andy Moderow, state director at the Alaska Wilderness League, called Willow a “legacy setting project” for Biden, because it would produce a large volume of oil from a sensitive habitat for decades.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads,” Moderow said, “where the world acknowledges climate change, our country is back to acknowledging climate change, and I think this project fits the bill for a question of whether we’re actually going to change direction or not during the Biden administration.”
Environmentalists Fear Willow Could Open Up New Areas for Drilling
The Willow Master Development Plan lies about 36 miles from the mostly-Indigenous village of Nuiqsut, and its construction would include pipelines, roads, a processing facility and up to five drill “pads,” each of which could host up to 50 wells. All told, the project could produce some 590 million barrels of oil over 30 years.
Environmental groups warn that because it would extend roads and pipelines further into the petroleum reserve, Willow could open up new areas to exploration, too. To the south, Australia-based 88 Energy has drilled exploratory wells into a field it says could produce at least hundreds of millions of barrels of oil.
Some residents of Nuiqsut, which is already surrounded by oil activity, say the industry is threatening their way of life. Flares burn through the night, they say, while fumes waft into town. Some say pollution from development has contributed to respiratory illness and other sickness.
Many of the town’s residents rely on subsistence hunting of fish, whales and caribou, and worry that the Willow project would worsen the industry’s impacts on wildlife and ecosystems. Siqiñiq Maupin, an Iñupiaq activist in Fairbanks whose mother and other family members live in Nuiqsut, said that since oil development picked up in the region, people have noticed black marrow in caribou bones, green meat and dead fish floating to the waters’ surface.
“The Willow Master Development Plan is going to make this much worse,” she said.
Maupin is the director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, a grassroots advocacy group that is the lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits that challenged Willow. The organization’s acronym, SILA, translates as “breath of life,” she said.
“When you are in the cold and you can see the fog leaving your breath, that is sila, and it connects us to the rocks, the water, the plants,” she said. “So that’s kind of the basis of our organization, is remembering those old traditions, that we’re not above or below any part of this Earth.”
Maupin and other critics of the project say the Trump administration rushed its approval, scheduling a public comment period during a surge in Covid-19 cases, for example. Residents who wished to comment had to join a virtual hearing, and some said Interior Department officials muted them when they tried to speak.
In August, Judge Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court in Alaska ruled that reviews conducted by the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to assess the project’s impacts on climate change and polar bears or to adequately consider alternative options for development.
Rebecca Boys, a ConocoPhillips spokeswoman, said the company is working with federal agencies and remains committed to Willow “as the next significant North Slope project,” but does not expect to make a final decision on whether to proceed until next year.
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Lieb, of Earthjustice, said the plaintiffs would like the administration to open a new public comment period and to conduct comprehensive assessments. But he said that officials at BLM have indicated they are instead carrying out a more narrow review without a public comment period.
Packer, the BLM spokesman, said that public meetings and a comment period would come after the release of a draft impact statement, to be considered in the final decision that would follow.
“It was a rushed, inadequate approval by the previous administration trying to get this out at the last minute before they left office,” Lieb said. “Because the district court decision vacated the entire approval, the Biden administration has the opportunity to do this right.”
If the Biden administration approves the project, advocates say, it will be allowing development of a large, new Arctic oil field at a time when many scientists and even the International Energy Agency say there is little room for investment in new fossil fuel projects. If the world is to begin using less oil, many advocates say, this is exactly the type of project that needs to be abandoned.