With just days to go until the Biden administration is set to release a decision on the first major oil drilling project of its tenure, the White House has indicated it may reduce the scope of the controversial project that has drawn fierce criticism from climate advocates.
The Willow Project, proposed by ConocoPhillips, is a massive and decadeslong oil drilling venture on Alaska’s North Slope that the state’s lawmakers say will create jobs and boost domestic energy production. Its supporters say Willow could be a much-needed new source of revenue for the region.
But environmental groups have remained staunchly opposed to it, fearing the effect of the planet-warming carbon pollution from the hundreds of millions of barrels of oil it would produce. Young voters have rallied on social media against the proposal with the hashtag #StopWillow in posts that have amassed tens of millions of views. A Petition to “say no to the willow project” on Change.org has more than 1.6 million signatures and continues to grow.
They say the approval of Willow will deal a significant blow to President Joe Biden’s climate credibility after he pledged in his campaign to end new oil drilling on federal land.
By the administration’s own estimates, the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year – equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads. Over the course of 30 years, climate groups have estimated it would release around 278 million metric tons of carbon pollution, which is more than what 70 coal-fired power plants could produce every year.
In a move to assuage the criticism, the Biden administration is looking at reducing the number of approved drilling pads from three to two and offering to boost nature conservation measures elsewhere in the state, according to two sources familiar with the details of the plan.
White House officials are considering cutting the most ecologically sensitive drill site of the three, one source said. And in a final environmental impact statement, the administration described how it would plant trees to mitigate carbon emissions from the project and move some drilling infrastructure to protect local loon habitat.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the discussions. A final decision on Willow is expected next week.
The concessions are not going over well with environmental groups – while at the same time enraging Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation.
“I don’t see people rejoicing in the climate community over any amount of drill pads being opened up in the petroleum reserve,” one climate advocate who has been engaged with the White House in recent weeks told News84Media.
On Wednesday, Alaska’s Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native in Congress, slammed the idea of reducing drill pads to appease environmental groups.
“If they go to two pads, we have told them we will view it 100% as a full denial,” Sullivan said. “Conoco has made it clear it would not be economically viable, and we have warned the White House: Don’t try to be cute.”
No matter where the administration ultimately lands on the massive oil project, it could face lawsuits from multiple sides that could hold the project up further.
ConocoPhillips could pursue legal options if the drill pad sites are reduced. ConocoPhillips spokesperson Dennis Nuss said the company is waiting to see a final decision on the project before it shares next steps.
Environmental legal group Earthjustice has been preparing a lawsuit against the project if it is approved. That won’t change – even if the number of drilling pads is reduced – said Jeremy Lieb, a senior attorney for Earthjustice.
“I think that litigation is very likely,” Lieb, who is based in Alaska, told News84Media. “We and our clients don’t see any acceptable version of this project.”
For climate groups that have been celebrating monumental wins in Congress under Biden, the Willow project represents a galvanizing moment of a different kind.
The League of Conservation Voters last month launched a six-figure television and digital ad campaign urging Biden to reject Willow.
LCV’s senior vice president of government affairs Tiernan Sittenfeld told News84Media her group is not negotiating with the Biden administration for a reduced number of drill pads; they still want to see the project cancelled.
“It clearly flies in the face of both his incredible climate accomplishments to date and his goal of cutting climate pollution in half by 2030,” Sittenfeld said. “Such significant swaths of the coalition that supports him are deeply opposed, and we’re seeing that this is incredibly galvanizing for young people.”
And activism against the project has surged on social media, with 50 million direct views of #StopWillow videos on TiKTok alone in recent weeks.
Climate advocates say that as Biden gears up for the 2024 election, a decision to approve Willow could risk alienating a base of young voters. It could also galvanize a widespread movement against a new fossil fuel project, like the resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline during the Obama administration.
“There’s a specific thing happening in a physical place; I think it makes it feel more real,” said Jamal Raad, co-founder and executive director for climate and clean energy group Evergreen Action. “I do not see one new voter for the Biden administration for approving the largest American oil extraction on public lands.”
The politics of the huge Alaska drilling project are messy – both inside and outside the Biden administration.
The Willow project has been under consideration since the Trump administration, which initially planned on approving it with a larger scope. The Biden administration has pursued the project with a smaller footprint.
It has sparked controversy even within the administration; When the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska released its preferred alternative of three drill pads last month, the US Department of the Interior put out a statement saying it had “substantial concerns” with the project, “including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts.” to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”
Alaska Natives are divided on the project. While the project has been largely opposed by the nearby Alaska Native village of Nuiqsut – which some villagers evacuated last year during a gas leak from another ConocoPhillips project in the area – it has garnered support from other Alaska Native tribes and officials who want the jobs and revenue the project could bring to the North Slope, which could boost the basic services for people that live there.
Nagruk Harcharek, president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, said Tuesday the project has “majority consensus” among Alaska Natives on the North Slope.
“We utilize the jobs that projects like this provide,” he said. “[They] provide income for the families on the North Slope”
Harcharek also said he does not believe the project would negatively affect subsistence hunting for animals, including whale and caribou.
“As the subsistence hunters of the North Slope, we would not support a project that threatened our subsistence livelihood,” Harcharek said, adding that subsistence hunting and resource development “are not mutually exclusive.”
“When you talk about environmental justice and protecting the environment, us Alaska natives are part of that environment,” Alaska state Rep. Josiah Patkotak, who has no party affiliation, said on Tuesday. “We’re asking the president, his Cabinet, all those involved in the decision-making process to keep that in mind.”
A final decision on the project is expected next week. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre last month said the final decision on Willow rests with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. But ultimately, environmental advocates and lawmakers like Murkowski told News84Media they believe the White House – not Interior – will make the final decision on whether to approve Willow.
Peltola, Murkowski and Sullivan have been asking White House staff to meet with Biden directly about the project, Murkowski told News84Media – a meeting request that so far has not been added to the president’s calendar. Murkowski told News84Media that if that happens after a Willow decision is released, “That’s pretty rude, I think.”
“It’s not any great state secret that I have been a cooperative Republican with this administration,” Murkowski told News84Media. “Cooperation goes both ways.”
This story has been updated with more information.