The decision scales back the project from the five rigs ConocoPhillips originally proposed, but allows what company officials have described as a site big enough for them to move on. In a statement Monday, the company said it will begin construction immediately on at least one gravel road and move toward a final investment decision on the entire project.
The high-risk project has been challenging for White House officialsleading to weeks of agonizing meetings with advocates on both sides of the issue. Willow marks the culmination of years of debate over the future of Arctic drilling. Environmentalists have made combating it a top priority, and in recent weeks young activists have launched a #StopWillow TikTok campaign to apply more pressure.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden had fiance to ban “new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters,” with environmental activists arguing that the project would undermine its lofty climate promises.
In a statement Monday, the Interior Department did not fully explain its approval of the project, but noted that ConocoPhillips has leasing rights to the region, which the company has had since the late 1990s. The agency highlighted its decision. to reject approvals for two of the five proposed drill sites and seek other conservation measures for the region that it announced Sunday night.
“The actions will create an additional buffer from exploration and development activities near calving grounds and migratory routes for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, an important livelihood resource for nearby Alaska Native communities,” the department said. . “They significantly reduce the Willow Project within the limitations of existing rights valid under decade-long leases issued by prior Administrations.”
He other measures announced on Sunday cover 16 million acres of land and water in Alaska. That includes putting the Arctic Ocean off-limits for US oil and gas leasing and new Interior regulations to protect nearly 13 million acres on NPR-A, including ecologically sensitive areas that provide habitat for thousands of caribou and shorebirds. ConocoPhillips will also relinquish oil rights to about 68,000 acres on leases it currently holds at NPR-A, about 60,000 of them in the Teshekpuk Lake special area, Interior said Monday.
“This was the right decision for Alaska and our nation,” Ryan Lance, ConocoPhillips CEO, said in a statement. “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities for environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and improving our energy security, while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities.”
The decision to allow three pads also allow the construction of hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine, and a large processing facility on the reserve’s nearly pristine tundra and wetlands. While originally set aside for oil production 100 years ago, only two sites now produce oil there, both managed by ConocoPhillips, and the extension provides important habitat for migrating caribou, waterfowl, and other wildlife.
Few drilling projects rival Willow in size, according to energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie; ConocoPhillips estimates that Willow will operate for the next 30 years. The firm’s two other projects producing oil in the reserve, Alpine West and Greater Mooses Tooth, have smaller reserves. The last time the federal government approved such a large operation was nearly eight years ago, when it signed off on BP’s Mad Dog Phase 2 in the Gulf of Mexico.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which includes hundreds of top climate and energy experts, has said the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by mid-century hope to meet their climate goals and avoid catastrophic warming.
While some in the administration wanted to block development, ConocoPhillips’ control of federal leases on NPR-A since 1999 gives it a strong position to challenge any federal decision that impedes its ability to develop, legal experts said. Allowing three pads protects the administration from a costly legal battle. It also relieves the administration of political fallout from allies in Alaska, including Rep. Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Democrat elected to the House since 1972, who say the bill will boost the state’s faltering economy.
Environmentalists say the proposed conservation measures won’t come close to offsetting the damage Willow will do to the planet. They had lobbied the White House to block the project despite the cost, saying anything less would betray Biden’s promise to cut national emissions by at least half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Alaska hopes those groups will sue to try again to stop the project.
“We will consider all appropriate tools in our continued fight to stop the Willow climate bomb,” Christy Goldfuss, director of policy impact for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Willow is a project out of time. With science demanding an end to fossil fuels, this leads to decades of increased reliance on oil.”
After years of planning and bureaucratic wrangling over the arctic reserve, ConocoPhillips initially received permits for Willow during the last year of the Trump administration. The company’s plan includes drilling into the permafrost and building a network of cooling pipes to keep it frozen even as the region warms.
Environmentalists sued and a federal judge blocked building permits in 2021 because the government failed to assess how burning the oil extracted from the ground would warm the planet. The administration did a new environmental review, which it published last month.
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management estimated in that review that Willow would generate approximately 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is equal to drive nearly 2 million gasoline cars or burn coal equivalent to nearly 51,000 rail cars. And he said ConocoPhillips would need to reduce its development footprint by about 12 percent to protect a nesting site for yellow-billed loons and caribou migration routes.
Interior said in a statement last month that it had “substantial concerns” about the environmental impacts of even that smaller development. And its leaders had been investigating alternatives that the White House, along with the agency, discussed internally in the lead up to the final decision.
Even as Biden’s political base pressured him to reject the bill, members of Alaska’s congressional delegation launched an equally intense lobbying campaign on his behalf. White House officials have spent much time working with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has made Willow a top priority and has, at times, backed the administration in a deeply divided Senate.
“The administration listened to the voices of Alaska. They listened to the Alaskan delegation as we pushed this case for energy security and national security,” Murkowski said on a call with reporters celebrating the passage. “Having this announcement today is very good news for the country and certainly for Alaska.”
Dino Grandoni and Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.