This article originally appeared on Grist.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has faced intense cross-party pressure over the Willow Project, a ConocoPhillips venture that would open up a vast swath of public land on Alaska’s North Slope to new oil drilling. While Alaska politicians and oil industry executives have lobbied the administration to approve the project—particularly in the wake of the energy crisis stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—progressives, environmental groups and some Alaska Native communities have strongly opposed it.
On Monday, the administration tried to calm both sides. The Bureau of Land Management announced its final approval for the project, clearing the way for ConocoPhillips to begin drilling in the coming years. At the same time, the Interior Department said it would limit future drilling in other parts of Alaska as well as ban offshore oil drilling in an area of Arctic Ocean waters.
The most recent Bureau of Land Management estimates show Willow could produce about 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years, generating up to $17 billion in revenue for Alaska and the federal government. Its projected economic impact has helped the project garner near-universal support from elected officials in Alaska at the state and federal levels, as well as the endorsement of some Alaska Native communities. Dan Sullivan, one of the state’s Republican senators, also claimed Willow could help deal with “the dictator in Moscow” by reducing global dependence on Russian oil.
The project’s potential productivity has sparked backlash in environmental circles, with the Democratic-aligned think tank the Center for American Progress declaring Willow a “carbon disaster” when it called on the president to scrap the project last year. As a candidate, Biden said that if elected there would be “no new drilling on federal lands, period.” The approval of the Willow project marks the first time a president has broken that promise without being forced by Congress or the federal courts.
According to the government’s own estimate, Willow could lead to the release of more than 249 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over three decades after all the oil is drilled and burned – the equivalent of adding about 2 million cars to the road every year . Additionally, research published by Grist in October showed that rapid thawing of permafrost in the area could pose little-understood safety risks if drilling goes ahead as planned. Already last spring, a month-long natural gas leak caused by a nearby Conoco rig led to hundreds of evacuations and panic in the Alaskan village of Nuiqsut.
ConocoPhillips has been pursuing Willow since at least 2015, when company engineers made a major oil discovery on leases the company had held for more than a decade. The Trump administration tried to force the project through the approval process in late 2020, but a federal court ruling handed the decision back to the incoming Biden administration next year. Biden’s Bureau of Land Management advanced a scaled-down version of the project last month, recommending that Conoco be allowed to drill three of the five proposed wells at the site.
Meanwhile, the announcement from the Department of the Interior would protect a vast swath of Alaskan wilderness from future development, creating what one official described to the New York Times as a “firewall” against future Willow-scale drilling projects. In a news release Sunday, Interior said it is drafting a rule that would ban oil drilling on more than half of the 23 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve, which is the site of the Willow project and the largest single tract of public land. in the US The announcement also pledged to protect 3 million acres of offshore waters in the Beaufort Sea.
In a statement, the Department said the rule was intended to “ensure that this important habitat for whales, seals, polar bears, and for subsistence purposes is forever protected from mining development.” It also said the new safeguards “are responsive to Alaska Native communities who rely on the land, water and wildlife to support their way of life.”
Climate groups do not appear to be appeased by the proposed safeguards, arguing that the new protections do not compensate for the damage the Biden administration will cause by endorsing Willow. Kristin Monsell, an attorney for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, told The New York Times on Sunday that the split decision was “insulting.”
“Protecting one area of the Arctic to destroy another doesn’t make sense,” he said, “and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upset by the Willow project.”
This article originally appeared on Grist. Grist is a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories about climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at Grist.org.