Massive Arctic Oil Drilling Project Gets the Green Light

The Biden administration approved a controversial proposal for drilling in Alaska, which could produce massive amounts of carbon emissions each year

A rainbow above the Kokalik River in Alaska
The Kokalik River in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

A controversial plan for oil and gas drilling on a long-disputed site in the Arctic received a green light from the Biden administration this week.

The $8 billion project, known as Willow, could produce enough carbon emissions to equal the impact of two million gas-powered cars driving each year, per CNN’s Ella Nilsen.

In what some are calling an attempt to placate environmentalists angered by Willow’s approval, the Biden administration also announced it would limit or ban oil and gas projects in other regions of the Arctic.

Some experts say the administration felt it could not legally reject the Willow project, since its developer, ConocoPhillips, bought leases for drilling long before Biden took office, reports the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman.

Environmentalists and some Alaska Native tribes have long expressed concerns about the potential climate and local ecology impacts from the project.

“While we recognize the nuanced economic challenges of the region, local community leaders have spoken out against Willow, saying that new extraction will cause more harm than good,” Emily Sullivan, Arctic Program Manager at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, says in a statement, per Gizmodo’s Molly Taft. “Willow will have far-reaching climate impacts, locking the U.S. into fossil fuel production for decades to come.”

Meanwhile, state officials, labor unions and a coalition of Alaska Native tribes have cheered the decision, as well as the jobs and revenue the drilling project will provide for the region. They had supported the development for its potential to increase domestic energy production.

“We finally did it, Willow is finally reapproved, and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, says in a statement, per CNN. The decision, she says, has primed Alaska for “improving quality of life on the North Slope and across our state.”

The drilling will be located in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre area in the northern part of the state. It was set aside as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy in 1923 and transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1976. Migratory birds, brown bears, caribou, polar bears, walrus and beluga whales rely on the reserve for habitat, according to the Alaska Wilderness League. Native communities that live in and around the area subsist on its living resources.

The Trump administration first approved the Willow project, and the Biden administration supported it as well. But a federal judge overturned the approval in 2021 and returned it to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for further consideration. The judge deemed the Trump administration’s environmental analysis insufficient, saying it didn’t fully consider the project’s potential to threaten wildlife or the climate, writes the Times.

In an environmental impact statement released in January, the BLM suggested a preferred alternative for the project that involves proceeding with just three of the original five proposed drill sites, with a possible fourth to be added in the future. It was these three drillings sites that got approved this week. The BLM said this alternative would reduce the footprint in an area that supports thousands of migratory birds and is a calving area and migration corridor for caribou. It also reduced the length of pipelines, gravel roads and ice roads.

Earthjustice, an environmental law organization that has sued the federal government over Willow, said the BLM’s preferred alternative would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3 to 9 percent compared to the original proposal, per the Washington Post’s Timothy Puko.

Environmentalists welcomed the Biden administration’s new regulations on drilling in other parts of the Arctic, but they still plan to fight Willow’s approval, with legal challenges expected in the future. “Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn’t make sense, and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project,” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells the Times.

The Arctic is feeling particularly strong impacts from climate change. The area has been warming nearly four times as fast as the rest of the world, per the Guardian’s Maanvi Singh.

“Our Native villages are eroding into the sea, thawing permafrost is making infrastructure insecure and food sources are disappearing,” Karlin Nageak Itchoak, senior regional director at the nonprofit Wilderness Society, told the Guardian in February. “And this project would just exacerbate and speed up the climate crisis in the Arctic.”

Editor’s Note, March 14, 2023: This story has been updated to reflect that the Willow project has been approved.

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