Biden Administration Signals Support for Controversial Alaska Oil Project

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration took a key step toward approving a huge oil drilling project in the North Slope of Alaska, angering environmental activists who said allowing it to go forward would make a mockery of President Biden’s climate-change promise to end new oil leases.

The ConocoPhillips project, known as Willow and located in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, was initially approved under the Trump administration and was later supported by the Biden administration but was then was blocked by a judge who said the environmental review had not sufficiently considered its effects on climate change and wildlife.

On Friday, the Biden administration issued a new environmental analysis.

In that analysis, the Department of Interior said the multibillion-dollar plan would at its peak produce more than 180,000 barrels of crude oil a day and would emit at least 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifetime from the burning of the oil produced, as well as from construction and drilling activity at the site.

The oil company’s plan calls for five drill sites, a processing facility, hundreds of miles of pipelines, nearly 40 miles of new gravel roads, seven bridges, an airstrip and a gravel mine in a region that is home to polar bears, caribou and migratory birds. Project opponents have argued that the development would harm wildlife and produce dangerous new levels of greenhouse gases.

In a statement, the Interior Department said that the new analysis included several options, including a reduction in the number of drilling sites as well as an option for “no action” — or no drilling at all — and did not represent a final decision on the Willow project. The agency will take comments from the public for 45 days and is likely to make a final decision later this year.

President Biden is pushing stronger regulations, but faces a narrow path to achieving his goals in the fight against global warming.

Yet just by issuing the analysis, the Biden administration signaled its support for the project, opponents said. Willow is a priority for Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate Republican who is frequently the most likely senator to break with her party and support Democratic appointees and some policy compromises.

Ms. Murkowski, in a statement, welcomed the move, calling it a “major announcement” and adding that she planned to hold the administration “accountable to their commitment to see this additional environmental review through so that construction can begin this winter.”

In a statement, ConocoPhillips said that the Willow project would “create employment opportunities for union labor and contribute local tax revenue that benefits communities on the North Slope, as well as significant state and federal tax revenue for many years.”

The announcement comes as Mr. Biden seeks to show voters that he is working to increase the domestic oil supply as prices surge in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just last week, the administration opened the door to more offshore oil and gas leasing in coastal waters over the next five years, all but ensuring significant new fossil fuel extraction.

Yet as a candidate, President Biden pledged to end new federal oil and gas leasing as he sought to assure younger voters and others concerned about climate change that he would pivot the country away from fossil fuels.

The burning of coal, oil and gas is responsible for putting vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is leading to dangerous increases in global temperatures.

“Totally furious that @DOI is one proforma step away from approving the ConocoPhillips Willow project,” Christy Goldfuss, the senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that is strongly supportive of the Biden administration, wrote on Twitter late Friday using the Department of the Interior’s initials.

“This oil and gas project will be a hub for development for DECADES in a place that climate change is rapidly MELTING,” she wrote.

Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Arctic ecosystems are in disarray, sea ice is disappearing, sea levels are rising, and the ground is thawing. At one point, ConocoPhillips announced plans to install “chillers” into the permafrost — which is melting because of climate change — to keep it solid enough to support the equipment to drill for oil.

The federal judge who last year blocked the project, Sharon L. Gleason of the United States District Court for Alaska, had sent the decision back to the government to redo. There was no deadline for the Biden administration to reissue a new analysis.

The Willow project is in the northeastern portion of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area the federal government set aside for oil and gas development. The initial discovery of oil in the Willow area was made by ConocoPhillips Alaska in 2017, and the company has said the project is expected to create more than 1,000 jobs during peak construction and more than 400 permanent jobs.

The new analysis includes a new alternative that Interior Department officials said would reduce the potential size of the project by removing two of the five proposed drill sites from consideration, including the elimination of the northernmost proposed drill site and associated infrastructure in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, important calving grounds for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

That alternative produces only slightly fewer emissions — 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions equivalent over the project’s 30-year lifetime — than ConocoPhillips’ preferred plan. According to the analysis, the oil company’s plan would create 284 million metric tons of emissions.