WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Wednesday took a crucial step toward approving an $8 billion ConocoPhillips oil drilling project on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, drawing the anger of environmentalists who say the vast new fossil fuel development poses a dire threat to the climate.
The Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental analysis that says the government prefers a scaled-back version of the project, which is known as Willow. The assessment calls for curtailing the project to three drill sites from five, as well as reducing the miles of both gravel and ice roads, pipelines and the length of airstrips to support the drilling.
The analysis is the last regulatory hurdle before the federal government makes a final ruling about whether to approve the Willow project. If approved, the Willow project would produce about 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years, with a peak of 180,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
Separately, Bureau of Land Management and White House officials are considering additional measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and environmental harm, such as delaying decisions on permits for one of the drill sites and planting trees, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
The final decision could come within the next month. But in concluding that limited drilling could occur on the land in Alaska’s North Slope, the Biden administration has already sent a strong signal that it is likely to give the project a green light, both supporters and opponents said.
The Department of the Interior issued a statement saying the agency still had “substantial concerns” about the Willow project, “including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.” The analysis notes that the agency might make final changes “that would be more environmentally protective” like delaying a ruling about permits to more than one drill site.
The report is expected to be greeted with relief by Alaskan lawmakers and ConocoPhillips executives, who wanted a more expansive area for drilling but were worried that President Biden, who has made tackling climate change a centerpiece of his agenda, would work to block the project entirely.
ConocoPhillips said in a statement that it “welcomes” the environmental analysis and said the alternative selected by the Bureau of Land Management provided “a viable path forward” for the Willow project.
“We believe Willow will benefit local communities and enhance American energy security while producing oil in an environmentally and socially responsible manner,” Erec S. Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, said in a statement. He said the project had undergone five years of rigorous regulatory review and called on the administration to approve the plan “without delay.”
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
The option is the smallest footprint possible for the Willow project with a more limited impact on the immediate environment, but still allows the company access to the area’s vast petroleum reserves. In addition to the three drilling sites, the Bureau of Land Management’s preferred option calls for about 482 acres of gravel fill, more than 400 miles of ice roads and about 89 miles of pipelines.
The agency said the blueprint would reduce the proposed project’s footprint within the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a critical ecological area in the petroleum reserve that supports thousands of migratory birds and is a primary calving area and migration corridor for the Teshekpuk caribou herd.
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Environmental activists said Mr. Biden was betraying his own climate change agenda. They noted that even reducing the number of drill sites would still allow the company to extract most of the area’s vast petroleum reserve, leading to 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the project’s 30-year lifetime, about the equivalent emissions of 66 new coal-fired power plants.
Mr. Biden has pledged to cut United States emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade in order to help avoid the worst consequences of global warming. He also made a promise on the campaign trail to end new federal leases for oil and gas development.
Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut, an Inupiat community near the proposed Willow project, said late Tuesday evening that she was disappointed by the administration’s finding. She said delaying the approval of one or more drilling sites would only spread out the harm over time to her community of about 500 residents.
Ms. Ahtuangaruak traveled to Washington recently to tell policymakers that the project encroaches on the habitat of the millions of migratory birds who use the area, as well as whales, polar bears and the more than 80,000 caribou that locals depend on for subsistence fishing and hunting. If Willow is approved, her community would be surrounded by oil and gas projects, she said.
“We have enough oil and gas development around us and enough areas that are already leased in this area that they could do work for a long time,” Ms. Ahtuangaruak said. “There’s no reason they have to go into this area. It’s about wanting to.”
Willow’s supporters, including Alaska’s congressional delegation, labor unions, building trade groups and some residents of the North Slope, say the project would bring much-needed crude to a market still seeking alternatives to Russian oil while bolstering America’s energy security, creating about 2,500 jobs and generating as much as $17 billion in revenue for the federal government.
A number of other Alaska Native tribal governments, organizations and corporations have voiced their support, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, Voice of the Arctic, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and the cities of Wainwright, Atqasuk and Utqiagvik.
“For the North Slope Inupiat, the Willow Project is a new opportunity to ensure our communities and our people have a viable future,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, a group representing Indigenous people in the region, wrote to lawmakers and members of the Biden administration.
ConocoPhillips has said it was hoping for a fast decision from the Biden administration that would allow construction to begin this winter. If spring sets in and warmer temperatures begin to melt the frozen roads, it could make it more difficult for crews to pass and construction would have to be shelved for another year.
Therein lies one of the Willow project’s ironies. Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States and the region is expected to continue to warm by an average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the 30-year life of the Willow project, thawing the frozen Arctic tundra around the drilling rigs and shortening the winter season during which ice roads and bridges remain frozen.
The proposed solution: ConocoPhillips plans to eventually install “chillers” into the thawing permafrost to keep it solid enough to support the equipment to drill for oil — the burning of which will release carbon dioxide emissions that will worsen the ice melt.
Willow was initially approved by the Trump administration and the Biden administration later defended the approval in court. The project was then temporarily blocked by a judge who said that the prior administration’s environmental analysis was not sufficient and did not fully consider the potential harm to wildlife or the further impact on climate change.