Biden admin approves Willow Project despite oil drilling concerns

The project was approved in 2020, but the permit was challenged in court.

March 13, 2023, 10:38 AM

The Biden administration approved a roughly $8 billion oil drilling project in Alaska on Monday, which is a significant climate decision for the administration that had pledged to move away from fossil fuels.

The Interior Department gave formal approval of the ConocoPhillips Willow Project proposal after the Biden administration said it substantially reduced the size of the project by allowing three drill sites instead of the five in the original proposal. The decision also requires the company to relinquish its leases for 68,000 acres to create a buffer between the infrastructure for the Willow site and migratory routes for a nearby caribou herd.

"President Biden is delivering on the most aggressive climate agenda of any U.S. president in history and spurring an unprecedented expansion of clean energy," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement Saturday.

The Willow Project was initially approved in 2020 by the Trump administration, but a federal judge threw out the permits for the oil project in August 2021, faulting the way the federal government had assessed its environmental impact. The Interior Department, which was responsible for the final decision on whether to approve the project, has said it has "substantial concerns" about the environmental impact of the project, including the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it would generate and impacts to local wildlife.

The Interior also announced Sunday that the administration will move to protect 16 million acres of Alaska from future oil and gas developments in an attempt to split the difference between the Willow Project decision and the intense concern from environmentalists that any new fossil fuel projects puts the country's climate goals at risk. The administration has argued it has limited ability to block Willow because the permits were previously issued in 2020 and ConocoPhillips already held lease rights in the area, so it could easily challenge a denial in court.

The Willow Project would generate 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak– 600 million over the project's lifetime – and is expected to create as many as 2,500 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs near the village of Nuiqsut on Alaska's North Slope, according to ConocoPhillips.

Pressure is building on the social media platform TikTok to urge President Joe Biden to reject an oil development project on Alaska’s North Slope from young voters concerned about climate change. 3c with related stories; ETA 2 p.m.
Associated Press

It's drawn bipartisan support from the Alaska Congressional delegation, who met with Biden at the White House last week.

"Encouraging news on Willow today--seems like the Administration is taking Alaskans' support for this project seriously. I don't want to jinx anything, but I hope the Admin stays the course and reapproves this project. Alaskans are watching!" Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola tweeted Friday night.

But the decision could prove problematic for Biden heading into an expected 2024 re-election bid, given his pledge during the 2020 campaign to allow "no more drilling on federal lands, period."

PHOTO: FILE - This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope. T
FILE - This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope. The Biden administration is weighing approval of a major oil project on Alaska's petroleum-rich North Slope that supporters say represents an economic lifeline for Indigenous communities in the region but environmentalists say is counter to Biden's climate goals. A decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska's Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, could come by early March 2023.

Climate groups have called the project a potential "carbon bomb" and said it would lock in fossil fuel production that the world needs to move away from.

Environmental impact statements for the project estimate it will generate up to 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years.

Videos from activists calling on Biden to block Willow have prompted a viral trend on TikTok, as the hashtag #StopWillow has garnered almost 150 million views.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks to the 2023 International Association of Fire Fighters Legislative Conference, Monday, March 6, 2023, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP