The Biden administration on Wednesday recommended a scaled-down version of a major oil drilling project in the North Slope of Alaska, taking a step toward approving the $8 billion Willow plan that climate groups have long condemned.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management released an environmental analysis that proposes lowering the number of drilling sites from five to three under the project, which is led by ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest crude oil producer.
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The Biden administration has 30 days to issue a final decision on whether to approve the Willow project. The Interior emphasized it could select a different alternative, including taking no action or postponing a ruling about permits to more than one drill site.
The Willow project would produce about 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years and would generate around 278 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to Interior estimates. Environmental advocates argue the plan would undermine the Biden administration’s agenda to curb fossil fuel production and say the project’s emissions would be roughly equivalent to what 66 new coal-fired power plants produce in a year.
The Interior Department said in a statement that it has “substantial concerns” about the Willow project, including its direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and its impact to local wildlife in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.
Kristen Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Alaska Wilderness League, called the Willow project a “massive climate disaster” and urged the administration to reverse its decision to advance the plan.
“Our window to act is rapidly closing to avert catastrophic climate change, and this plan only takes us one giant step closer to the edge,” Miller said. “We should be prioritizing ways to preserve this irreplaceable ecosystem, by protecting critical wildlife and subsistence resources and avoiding increased climate pollution.
Proponents of the Willow project, including the state’s congressional delegation and some Alaska Native tribal governments, say the plan would create more than 2,500 jobs for the Alaska residents, deliver up to $17 billion in revenue for the federal government and boost the country’s domestic energy security.
ConocoPhillips said in a statement that it “welcomes and continues to review” the government’s environmental analysis and said the decision “represents a major milestone in the permitting process.”
“We believe Willow will benefit local communities and enhance American energy security while producing oil in an environmentally and socially responsible manner,” Erec Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, said in a statement.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the administration’s decision to advance the project is an “important step towards reestablishing American energy independence and strengthening American energy security.”
“Alaska has a robust history of contributing to American energy security and this project will position them to continue that legacy,” Manchin said in a statement.