The Biden administration’s approval of a massive oil development in northern Alaska commits the US to yet another decades-long crude oil project, even as scientists urgently warn that only cutting most fossil fuel emissions can halt climate change.
ConocoPhillips’ Willow project will produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day at peak, and using that crude would result in at least 263 million tons (239 million metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years.
Demand for oil is not falling as the planet warms, and a bitter political battle over the project, which was approved on Monday, has highlighted the Democratic administration’s struggle to balance economic pressures against commitments to curb fossil fuels. The proposal in the remote region north of the Arctic Circle also underscores the paradox facing the U.S. and other nations: The world’s transition to clean energy is lagging behind the reality of an economy still heavily fueled by oil consumption.
“At some point, we have to leave oil, gas and coal in the ground. And to me, that’s a point now — particularly in a fragile ecosystem like the Arctic,” said Rob Jackson, a climate scientist at Stanford University.
For Alaska, the project promises an economic boost after oil production has fallen sharply since the late 1980s, and political leaders from both parties in the state have rallied to support it. Oil has long been the young state’s economic lifeblood, with revenues also helping remote communities and villages on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope invest in local infrastructure.
But the state has also felt the effects of a changing climate: coastal erosion threatens indigenous villages, unusual wildfires are emerging, sea ice is thinning and permafrost promises to release carbon as it melts.
The International Energy Agency said new investment in oil and gas drilling must stop if nations, including the US, hope to meet their 2050 goal of net zero emissions, meaning only as much gas is released into the atmosphere which warms the planet. to be absorbed.
The energy sector is responsible for 90% of global carbon dioxide emissions and three-quarters of all human-caused greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
However, global demand for crude is expected to continue rising, according to industry analysts and the US Energy Information Administration.
Instead of targeting domestic supplies of these fuels — including projects like Willow — energy expert Jim Krane said policymakers should focus on reducing demand.
“If you target U.S. supply without any kind of measures to reduce demand, refiners will just pull their oil from overseas,” he said.
Targeting supplies could also have broader economic implications, as transportation costs are one driver of inflation, Krane added.
Electric vehicles offer a potential replacement for gasoline-powered cars and trucks, but so far they have done little to reduce demand for fossil fuels. By 2030, the EV is expected to displace 2.7 million barrels of oil per day, according to new findings from Enverus Intelligence Research, a data analytics firm focused on the energy industry.
That’s less than 3 percent of global oil consumption, which in 2030 is expected to be about the same as today’s levels — about 100 million barrels a day, said Al Salazar, senior vice president at the research firm.
“Demand doesn’t go to zero immediately,” Salazar said. “It takes time to roll over the entire fleet of light vehicles.”
The Willow project is located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska – a place where Republican US senators have noted drilling should be expected. The Biden administration last year reinstated an Obama-era oil reserve management plan that limited oil and gas leasing to about 52 percent of federal lands in the region. That overturned a Trump-era plan that called for about 82 percent of federal lands to be made available for lease.
Greenhouse gases from Willow would be equivalent to emissions from about 1.7 million cars. That’s only 0.1% of total US emissions. Interior Department officials for years have cited such relatively small emissions on a global scale as justification for approving coal mines and oil and gas leases.
Jackson said that outlook cannot continue if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided. The planet is “as far from zero emissions as ever” despite the emphasis on renewable energy.
“It’s the same as thinking, well, every new car we put on the road or coal plant we build doesn’t matter because there are millions of other cars and thousands of other coal plants around the world,” he said.
Before the Willow decision, the administration had already softened its opposition to oil and gas that marked the early days of the Biden presidency.
The Democrat initially suspended new oil and gas lease sales, and the administration then fended off a legal challenge to that policy from Republican attorneys general. But during last year’s climate bill negotiations, the administration agreed to tens of millions of acres of new leasing to get the support of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, R-West Virginia.
The measure’s provisions link oil and gas leasing to renewable energy development. As a result, management plans to offer for sale later this month more than 73 million acres of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. In May and June, it will auction 280,000 acres of land leases in Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and other states.
Environmentalists say the Gulf sale could lead to drilling that would extract more than 1 billion barrels of oil and large volumes of natural gas over the next 50 years.
“This administration is committed to overseeing a historic transition to clean energy, but actions speak louder than words,” said Earthjustice attorney George Torgun, who is representing environmental groups that asked a federal court to stop the sale. in the Gulf.
Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said the transition to more renewable energy won’t be like flipping a switch. He predicted that the oil and gas industry would continue for decades.
“We’ll have an industry 30 years from now,” he said.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.