About two weeks before the Biden administration approved the Willow oil drilling project, slated to pump millions of barrels of oil from the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held a meeting with key environmental advocates. and indigenous groups that opposed the project.
Those constituents convinced her to reject ConocoPhillips’ massive drilling venture. Haaland explained that the agency had to make difficult decisions, much to the dismay of the people she was meeting with.
Haaland did not explicitly say how the department stood by the decision at the time. Sources at the meeting said that she got emotional about it, which they took as an indication that she personally was not in favor of the project.
“It was physically evident how difficult it was for her to be in this position,” a source said.
After months of internal deliberations, the Biden administration officially gave the green light Monday to the massive oil-drilling project amid fierce pressure from the state’s congressional delegation and widespread pushback from environmental groups, the last of the which will now try to stop the project in court.
On Monday night, Haaland posted a video on twitter calling Willow a “difficult and complex issue that was inherited” from the Trump administration, which originally approved a larger version in 2020.
For weeks, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre publicly insisted that the final decision on Willow would be an “independent decision” made by Haaland and the Interior Department. But multiple sources told CNN the opposite was true.
Willow’s approval was largely a political and legal decision, they suggested, not a decision about the environment or the climate crisis.
“We realized some time ago that this would be a decision that would ultimately be made at the White House level, not just by senior leadership, but with direct input from the president,” Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski told CNN on Monday. from Alaska. “This was not something that was finally going to reside with the Secretary of the Interior; I think a decision was made some time ago that this was at the highest political level.”
An administration official said that while the White House was consulted, Alaska lawmakers met at their request and legal restrictions were worked out with the Interior Department, the final decision was made by the Interior.
Although Haaland spoke extensively with Alaska Natives and other groups on both sides of the bill and called lawmakers the weekend before the announcement, the secretary’s name was conspicuously absent from the final document that cemented his approval.
Instead, the name of the Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Tommy Beaudreau, was on the document; Beaudreau acted as the point person on the Interior project, according to Alaska lawmakers.
Willow “does not follow Haaland’s lead at all,” said an environmental advocate. “I think it’s an incredibly short-sighted mistake that they’ve made by not letting her lead with her ferocity in everything.”
For a president who campaigned on a promise to ban new fossil fuel drilling on public land and has focused heavily on the effect of the climate crisis and the country’s clean energy transition, sources said Willow’s decision was tense. within the Biden administration, even within the White House itself.
“Were there people within the administration who were actively working to kill this? Absolutely, positively,” Murkowski said. Until the decision was published, “I think there were still people working to end this.”
Around the same time that Haaland was meeting with supporters, President Joe Biden and a small group of his top advisers met with three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation for more than an hour, who urged him to quickly pass the bill. .
Speaking to reporters Monday, Republican Sens. Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola said they launched a multi-pronged lobbying campaign during the meeting with Biden.
“We teamed up very well,” Sullivan said. “There was no problem that we did not insist on.”
Sullivan brought a map showing the impacts of 45 executive orders Biden had already taken that Sullivan characterized as “blocking” Alaska’s economic development.
Peltola told the president that he believed Willow exemplified a just and managed transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, and that it would benefit impoverished communities on Alaska’s North Slope. Lawmakers stressed that the project could produce more than 180,000 barrels of oil per day, which could help keep gasoline prices low for Americans and reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil.
“I am very supportive of the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy; that process is not going to happen in an instant,” Peltola said. “And this project is a key piece of the transition, at least for Alaska.”
But of all the arguments they made, Murkowski said one that might have had the biggest impact was the fact that ConocoPhillips had existing leases in the area, presenting thorny legal challenges for management.
“There was no getting around the fact that these were valid existing lease rights,” Murkowski said. “The administration [was] they’re going to have to support reality, whether they want to or not.”
The administration felt its hands were tied, two government sources told CNN. The Biden administration determined that, legally, the courts would not have allowed them to completely reject or slash the project, the sources said. Had they pursued those options, they could have faced heavy fines in addition to legal action from ConocoPhillips.
Within the White House and the administration, the feeling was that the Department of the Interior had been given a tough choice; if they tried to stop ConocoPhillips, they could have lost in court, ended up with billions in fines and the oil company could still have drilled, an administration official said. The prevailing feeling was that they should instead try to shape the project in other ways by adding more protections to federal lands and waters in Alaska.
On Sunday and Monday, administration officials highlighted additional actions they were taking to try to minimize the impact of the project, including moving to protect up to 16 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve and off the north coast of Alaska from future fossil fuel drilling.
Although the administration noted that it had reduced the size of the project by almost 70,000 acres, ConocoPhillips and the Alaska delegation still scored a major victory by winning approval for three drilling rigs, meaning they can extract more than 90% of the oil they were looking for.
The fight at Willow is not over. All parties now anticipate a legal challenge from environmental groups, who plan to sue to try to stop the project.
Earthjustice, an environmental law group, has been preparing a complaint against the project. Even as Earthjustice’s lawyers are reviewing the decision, they have already begun to lay out its legal basis. Lawyers for the group say the Biden administration’s authority to protect surface resources on Alaskan public lands includes taking steps to reduce planet-warming carbon pollution, which Willow would eventually join.
Environmental groups and ConocoPhillips are racing against time. Willow can only be built during the winter building season, which depending on the weather could end sometime in April. If the groups can get a court order to halt or delay the project, it could delay construction for at least a year.
The administration will likely soon be forced to defend the Willow project in front of a judge, along with ConocoPhillips and attorneys for the state of Alaska, Murkowski told reporters.
“Even with the modifications, I think it’s fair to say that the work of [Interior], working with the other agencies and Conoco, they told me that they all feel we have a very strong case that will stand up to legal challenge,” Murkowski said. “But we have to move onto the court.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Haaland did not explicitly say in the meet with environmental advocates if they supported the Willow Project.