The Biden administration’s approval of the Willow oil and gas project on Alaska’s North Slope could commit the US to a 30-year project that will produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to more than 1.7 million passenger cars each year.
The lengthy commitment has rankled environmental groups, who see the project as a broken promise and a decades-long investment in fossil fuels, at the same time that scientists warn that global emissions must fall sharply.
“President Biden’s decision to endorse Willow betrays his campaign promises and the millions of young voters who supported him,” Aaditi Lele, policy director for the youth-led activist organization Zero Hour, said in a statement. “Drilling for new oil and gas is incompatible with the magnitude of the crisis we are facing.”
The decision on the bill, which has become the subject of growing backlash on social media in recent months, almost alone calls into question whether the Biden administration’s broader climate efforts will meet the goals set by international organizations, which are considered essential to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It also shows how geopolitical forces are challenging the administration’s ability to abruptly move away from fossil fuels.
Kristen Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Alaska Wilderness League, said giving the oil and gas company the green light is the antithesis of the aggressive action needed to reduce emissions.
“This decision is a big step backwards,” he said. “How we manage our public lands for oil and gas needs to be an important part of how we address the climate crisis, and the US Arctic needs to be the number one place to address this.”
The decision grants oil producer ConocoPhillips access to three drill sites on federal land for nearly 200 wells, according to a decision document from the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior. Over the life of the project, the federal government expects the company to produce about 576 million barrels of oil that, if flared, would produce the equivalent of about 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution, the document says.
“It will rank among the largest projects in the United States when completed,” said Michael Lazarus, senior scientist at the US’s Stockholm Environmental Institute, adding that the project’s annual greenhouse gas pollution would be roughly equivalent to to 10% of all emissions produced in the state of Washington each year.
There is also concern that the Willow project could just be the beginning. The construction of oil facilities and roads in that part of the North Slope paves the way for future projects.
“Development of this project will result in the construction of a fair amount of infrastructure in a remote part of Alaska,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, making additional drilling projects are more feasible.
The Biden administration’s goal is to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal of the Paris Agreement, scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel The United Nations Climate Change Committee has said that global emissions must peak by 2025 at the latest and decline by 43% by 2030.
The Biden administration said it reduced the size of the project by denying two of the five proposed drill sites, and a source familiar with the decision said the White House did not believe it could legally prevent the project from going ahead.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the administration believes it can still meet its climate goals.
Lazarus said that the decision to let the project go forward could impede the objectives of the administration and that exemplifies a pattern in which governments commit to more new fossil fuel infrastructure than global climate agreements should allow, a trend of your organization’s documents in an annual report.