The Biden administration has thrown its support behind a massive oil drilling project in Alaska, infuriating environmentalists and extending a policy begun under Donald Trump.
The plan, known as the Willow project, would allow the natural gas company ConocoPhillips to extract over 100,000 barrels of oil per day from Alaska’s North Slope over the next 30 years, according to a report by The New York Times.
The Trump administration approved the plan last October, but environmentalist groups sued to block it in February 2021 – after President Biden took office – citing concerns about local wildlife and global warming. Considering Mr Biden’s strong support for environmental causes, the groups may have expected him to support their cause.
That’s not how it played out. On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior defended the project in a brief filed to the US District Court for Alaska, arguing that ConocoPhillips already considered the wildlife impacts and that the environmentalist groups challenged the plan too late.
“Conoco does have valid lease rights,” the court document says.
Alaskan environmental groups were flummoxed by the decision.
“This is especially disappointing coming from a president who promised to do better,” Siqiñic Maupin, director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, told the Times.
Throughout his time in office, Mr Biden has championed the cause of battling the climate crisis. Early in his presidency, he rejoined the Paris climate accord spurned by Mr Trump. On Earth Day, he convened 40 world leaders for a summit on how to reduce carbon emissions. Within the United States, he has set numerous limits on oil and gas drilling on public lands.
Climate activists find it hard to square that record with the ConocoPhillips decision.
“Not only does the project in itself have significant and long-lasting climate problems, it’s setting the stage for more emissions in the future,” Kristen Miller, who leads the Alaska Wilderness League, told the Times.
The Department of the Interior, however, says the plan complies with environmental regulations.
“A Wednesday filing by the US Department of Justice continues to defend a 2020 Record of Decision for the Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve,” the agency told The Independent. “The filing maintains that the decision complied with NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] standards in place at the time, and that the plaintiffs did not challenge the Record of Decision within the time limitations associated with environmental review for projects in the NPR-A.”
There may also be some political calculus behind the decision. One of Alaska’s senators is Lisa Murkowski, a rare moderate Republican. In an evenly split Senate, her vote could prove extremely valuable as Mr Biden tries to move his legislative agenda through Congress.
Both Ms Murkowski and Alaska’s junior senator, Dan Sullivan, were delighted by the Biden administration’s support for the Willow project.
“I am pleased to share that the Department of the Interior has filed a brief in support of Willow and has committed to supporting the project moving forward,” Ms Murkowski said in a statement. “Through their careful review, the administration reached the same conclusion that we have always known, which is that the Willow project went through a rigorous, comprehensive permitting process and can move forward because it is being held to the highest environmental and labor standards in the world.”
Mr Sullivan concurred.
“I appreciate the President and Secretary Haaland for listening to us and defending this once-in-a-generation energy development that will unlock many more opportunities for our state and our country,” the senator said. “Today’s news on Willow is very positive for Alaska, good-paying jobs for working families, and our economy.”