The Biden administration has approved a major oil drilling project in Alaska known as Willow that will produce hundreds of millions of barrels of oil over the coming decades, a move that infuriated Democrats and climate activists who accused the president of undercutting his green agenda.
The Interior Department on Monday greenlit the $8 billion ConocoPhillips project that’s been in limbo for years, delivering a significant victory to the energy sector and Alaska’s congressional delegation, who say it will help blunt high energy costs in the years to come.
Alaska’s three-member delegation — GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola — lauded the decision.
“We finally did it, Willow is finally reapproved and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” Ms. Murkowski said. “I thank the administration for listening to Alaskans, rejecting false claims meant to sink this project and having the courage to make the right decision on Willow.”
Still, the president dealt a blow to environmentalists and local native residents, who cited health and environmental concerns. The decision came one day after the Biden administration unveiled new protections for more than 16 million acres of land and water in the region.
Greenlighting Willow also breaks a core climate pledge from Mr. Biden to not approve any new oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands. But breaking that promise gives him new ammunition in a 2024 reelection run to fend off accusations that he is anti-oil and responsible for high gasoline and energy prices.
The environmental group Evergreen Action described the Willow decision as “heartbreaking” and an “unacceptable departure from President Biden’s promises to the American people on climate and environmental justice.”
“This decision flies in the face of concerns raised by community leaders in Nuiqsut about how this development will threaten their subsistence way of life and worsen their existing air quality crisis, and it will undermine progress towards our climate targets, all for the sake of padding ConocoPhillips’ bottom line,” Evergreen Action Executive Director Lena Moffitt said.
Sen. Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and author of the Green New Deal, called Willow an “environmental injustice” that “leaves an oil stain on the administration’s climate accomplishments.”
“I am in solidarity with the community of advocates who oppose this disastrous decision and will continue fighting alongside them to put our people and our planet ahead of the profits of Big Oil,” Mr. Markey said.
The Willow project, which will occur on federal lands in northern Arctic Alaska, is expected to produce nearly 629 million barrels of oil and 260 million metric tons of carbon emissions over the next three decades, according to the administration’s estimates. The project could produce up to 180,000 barrels per day once operational in the coming years. The U.S. currently produces a little more than 12 million per day.
Climate activists say the annual emissions will equate to roughly 66 coal-fired power plants.
“The Willow project is completely incompatible with the Biden administration’s climate goals and the historic climate accomplishments we’ve made. It’s dirty and dangerous,” Climate Power Executive Director Lori Lodes said. “The politics of climate have changed, and the way we allow oil and gas companies like ConocoPhillips to profit at the expense of our air, water, lands, public health and shared climate future needs to change, too.”
Legal challenges to the project are expected.
Willow will also bring economic benefits, including up to $10 billion in federal royalties and state and local taxes, in addition to federal revenues of up to $7 billion, according to the Interior Department.
One notable Democrat outside the Alaskan congressional delegation also celebrated Willow: Senate Energy Committee Chairman Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
“This is a long-awaited and critical step towards shoring up American energy security,” Mr. Manchin said. “Responsible development of our abundant natural resources is essential if we are to maintain our status as the superpower of the world, capable of supporting our allies around the globe.”
Despite the victory for Willow advocates, Mr. Biden was criticized for the new environmental protections covering millions of acres that block future oil and gas drilling in land and water in the region.
“Those areas have been estimated to hold 15-20 billion barrels of oil and nearly 100 trillion cubic feet of gas, but are now off-limits forever,” said Rick Whitbeck, Alaska state director of the energy sector advocacy group Power The Future. “Make no mistake — Willow is a huge win for America, but at what cost?”