When campaigning for President in 2020, longtime Washington, D.C., deal-maker Joe Biden promised that key climate-related decisions were off the table. “No more drilling on federal lands, period!.” Joe told a rally. “Period! Period! Period!”
On Monday, however, the Biden Administration approved the Willow Project in Arctic Alaska, the largest oil and gas development proposed in the United States. ConocoPhillips was given the go-ahead to build three drilling sites, with up to 199 wells, on federal land in the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve.
The administration, trying to ease the sting felt by environmentalists and the Democratic Party’s left, threw in sweeteners. A total of 2.8 million acres in the Beaufort Sea will be put off limits to oil exploration, along with more than half of the National Petroleum Reserve. ConocoPhillips will relinquish 68,000 acres of existing leases, much of the land being around Teshekpuk Lake, a major destination for migratory birds.
Political rivals in Alaska’s epic land use battles saw the decision very differently. “We finally did it: Willow is finally re-approved and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters. The project will create an estimated 2,500 construction jobs and 300 permanent positions. It will cost up to $8 billion, with oil revenues sending billions into federal, state, and Alaska Native corporation coffers.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has battled oil drilling to the east in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, feared for the planet. “Willow is not just about protecting the fragile tundra and one of the world’s last great intact ecosystems,” said Cantwell. “It’s about trying to stop runaway global warming from burdening future generations. We should be doubling down on energy solutions that can rapidly provide Americans with cleaner and more affordable alternatives.”
Alaska has been warming at twice the rate of the rest of the United States. The Willow Project will yield up to 188,000 barrels of oil a day, and 600 million barrels over its anticipated 30-year lifespan. It will emit 280 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, roughly the equivalent of two coal-burning power plants.
Biden gave thumbs-up to Willow for a complex set of reasons. There’s nothing like a war to focus leaders’ minds. The war in Ukraine has put a spotlight on Europe’s dependence on Russia for oil and natural gas. The conflict has driven up the price of oil and brought renewed pressure for the U.S. to meet its own needs. “This [Willow] is a long-awaited and critical step toward shoring up America’s energy security,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
If it tried to block Willow, the administration feared it would lose in court. “Administration options were limited due to legal constraints – many leases were decades-old, giving [the] company certain valid, existing rights: The legal determination was courts would not have allowed outright rejection and could even impose fines on the government,” one senior official told a background briefing.
Alaska’s development-hungry politicians have looked insensitive and oafish in past environmental showdowns. The late Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, described proposed national parks as the domain of “jet-setting hippie backpackers.” Outsiders were trying to turn his state into a playground for the “effete rich,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.Then-Gov. Wally Hickel defended the aerial killing of wolves with the immortal words: “We can’t just let nature run wild.”
In a Senate speech last week, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, used the phrase “eco-terrorists” to describe Willow opponents – including, presumably, his own colleagues. ConocoPhillips followed a different strategy, promising to soften its “footprint,” including measures to keep permafrost from melting beneath its roads. A canny Murkowski and newly elected Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola rounded up support from Alaska’s labor unions, native villages and corporations — even a resolution of support from the University of Alaska Board of Regents. Willow was, Murkowski insisted, “meticulously planned, socially just, and environmentally sound.”
Ryan Lance, chairman/CEO of ConocoPhillips, greeted approval with language not usually heard from an oilman: “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security, all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska native communities.”
Oil production at Prudhoe Bay, just east of the Willow Project, has been in decline. One major oil company, BP, has pulled out of the state. Shell spent $7 billion before abandoning its exploration efforts in the Chukchi Sea off northwest Alaska. When the Trump Administration tried to rush a lease sale in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, it was snubbed by major oil companies.
Willow has consequently assumed outsized importance. “We must reverse Alaska’s economic decline,” said Peltola. “Today [Monday], the Biden administration made the right choice and put real energy progress over absolutism.”
Is a new major Arctic oil development “real progress?” Not to opponents. “Willow is a project out of time,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. “With science demanding an end to fossil fuels, this locks in decades [of] more dependence on oil.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, took out after Biden, tweeting: “@POTUS’ decision on Willow is wrong on every level. It destroys our climate goals and undermines international climate ambition. We can’t ask other nations to curb dirty energy production if we’re greenlighting fossil projects.”
Global warming is already impacting the 49th state. The Arctic icepack is shrinking. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing. The melting of permafrost is releasing methane into the atmosphere. The melt has already caused a slump that forced closure in 2021 of the road that extends 90 miles across Denali National Park.
“The Biden Administration’s approval makes it clear that its call for climate action and the protection of biodiversity is talk, not action,” said Sonia Ahekivgak, speaking for Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, a native group that opposes Willow.
The Biden administration has taken action on climate. It pulled the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry oil from Alberta’s tar sands across the United States to Gulf of Mexico ports for export. It has vowed to block any more oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By using the Clean Water Act, it has turned back a massive copper and gold mine proposed between two of Bristol Bay’s premier salmon spawning streams.
Willow is likely to face challenges in federal court. Environmentalists sued the Trump Administration when it gave the project initial approval. A federal judge sent the U.S. Bureau of Land Management back to the drawing boards, ruling that impacts on wildlife had not been adequately evaluated.
The BLM’s parent, the U.S. Interior Department, laid out conditions for ConocoPhillips in a lengthy record of decision, promising much greater vigilance than the pell-mell approval of projects under Trump. “In requiring compliance with these measures, [Interior] had adopted all practicable means to avoid or minimize environmental harm from the alternative selected and will implement a monitoring and enforcement program for these requirements,” it said.
The anger among environmental activists and the left wing of the Democratic Party is not likely to abate. More than 3.1 million Americans signed a change.org petition calling for rejection of Willow. The anti-Willow campaign generated 1.1 million individual letters. Generous conservation donors, e.g. Zumiez co-founder Tom Campion of Seattle, used face time with Biden to argue against further oil and gas development in the Arctic.
Still, where can these people go in a polarized America? Republican environmentalists are an endangered if not extinct species. As GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin rallied her party by leading chants of “Drill, baby, drill.”
Curiously, Palin may have helped the cause most by losing. Trying for a comeback, she ran for Congress last fall. Palin was defeated by Peltola, a Democrat who had the support of Republican Sen. Murkowski. Alaska elected a Democrat to the House for the first time in 49 years. Murkowski was reelected over a far-right opponent after Trump flew in the campaign against her.
The two “gentle ladies from Alaska” made the case of how Willow would benefit their state, and that this would be one energy project done right. They cleared a path allowing Biden to reclaim middle ground as he prepares to run for reelection. Question being, however: Will Alaska’s permafrost melt under the weight of the massive project he has just approved?