"No more drilling, not even offshore. No way for the oil industry to continue drilling, period, end," clarified then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in a March 2020 CNN debate with his competitor Bernie Sanders. Almost three years to the day, the "New York Times" headlines: "Biden administration approves huge oil project in Alaska". Joe Biden has broken his promise.
The US Department of the Interior gave the green light to the $8 billion Willow Project on Monday. After 600 million barrels of oil, the energy company Conoco Phillips wants to drill in Alaska in the coming decades - in what may be the last untouched wilderness in the USA. Local residents are looking forward to hundreds of jobs in the long term, even thousands in the short term, and the state to billions in profits from taxes and licenses. Critics and environmental activists see black - and do not mean the oil.
The country's seventh largest energy company wants to produce the equivalent of more than 28.6 million liters per day in the North Slope region in northern Alaska. That would correspond to around 1.5 percent of all US oil production - making Willow the largest oil project on state soil. The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), the United States' largest oil reserve, covers an area the size of Hungary, a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. According to Alaska Republican Senator Dan Sullivan, Willow has the potential to become "one of the largest and most important resource development projects in our state's history."
Conoco Phillips discovered the gigantic oil field in 2017 and recently proposed five drilling sites to the government. The State Administration Office, which reports to the Ministry of the Interior, has now approved three of them. According to the company, at least that would have been needed to make the whole thing profitable.
There is cross-party support for the project in Alaska, and not just at the political level. The mayor of the 500-inhabitant settlement of Nuiqsut, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, is one of the most determined opponents. However, she does not speak for the majority of the indigenous population. Numerous indigenous groups in the US exclave strongly support the project. They promise themselves an economic lifeline. There is a "majority consensus" for the project, Nagruk Harcharek, president of an Iñupiat interest group, told the US news agency AP. The local Alaska Native Village Corporation is also said to have sided with the company. "Today the people of Alaska were heard," the AP quoted Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, a Yup'ik affiliate.
Conoco Phillips will relinquish leasehold rights to 27,500 acres in the NPR-A, it said. This will allow the Willow project to use less freshwater and eliminate all infrastructure (roads, pipelines, dirt roads) built to date for the two drill sites rejected by the government. This would also preserve the habitats of native animals such as caribou, migratory birds and whales. At the same time, this should also prevent the company from expanding the production area contrary to the agreement.
According to the Home Office, half of Willow's net emissions could be offset by, among other things, planting new trees for CO2 storage. At the same time, the White House announced that it would indefinitely close a 2.8 million hectare area in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska to oil and gas production and issue stricter rules for particularly vulnerable NPR-A areas. That, in turn, angered representatives of the energy industry and parts of local politics, who had bet on the beginning of a mineral boom in Willow.
Environmental groups see this primarily as window dressing. After all, Willow would nevertheless leave massive damage to the environment. You speak of a "carbon bomb". "It doesn't make sense to protect one area of the Arctic to destroy another," a lawyer for an environmental protection group told the New York Times. On social media, activists with the hashtag
"I understand the political pressure that the government is under, but the science doesn't change," Michael Lazarus of the Stockholm Environmental Institute put it mildly to the AP.
While environmentalists accuse Biden of betraying his own principles, the decision is also causing fierce opposition within his own ranks. Party colleagues in Congress complain that Biden would break his campaign promise to halve US emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels.
Biden had already committed himself to fighting climate change in the race for the White House. In fact, immediately after taking office, he had initially suspended sales of oil and gas leases, but was later committed to compromise, at least in part. The New York Times reports that the president approved the Willow project of his own free will, without pressure from conservative MPs or court decisions.
In 2021, when Biden had only recently been in the Oval Office, the Justice Department defended the results of an environmental impact assessment carried out under Donald Trump, as a result of which Willow was approved. Under Trump, officials had argued that domestic oil production would ultimately reduce global emissions - after all, unlike foreign competitors, US companies adhered to environmental standards. The resistance of science was not long in coming. A federal judge revoked the approval - among other things because the analysis had simply been carried out poorly.
And yet the oil should soon be bubbling up - thanks to another, this time probably final, check. Home Secretary Deb Haaland called the Willow release a "difficult and complex matter" involving old leases from previous governments. One had therefore only a "limited decision-making leeway". In fact, Conoco Phillips had acquired the leasehold rights for the area back in 1999 - but for a long time you didn't know what treasure you were sitting on. "They [the US government] would have lost in court," says lawyer Amy Myers Jaffe of New York University. The fact that a kind of compromise was reached at all can already be seen as a success, she told the Washington Post.
So far this year, around 498,000 barrels have flowed through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline every day – in the 1980s it was more than two million. As a result, the Biden administration has also leased significantly less state land for oil production than previous administrations. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that the United States is still the world's largest polluter after the People's Republic of China. Willow is unlikely to improve the balance sheet: in the 30 years that it is now planned to drill in Alaska, it will reportedly release almost 280 million tons of greenhouse gases. Just as well, a good two million more cars could be driving in the USA by then. Speaking of traffic: Hundreds of kilometers of roads, gravel roads, airstrips and, of course, pipelines would also have to be laid out for oil production. All in the largest contiguous expanse of pristine nature in the entire United States.
Sources: US Department of the Interior statement; Conoco Phillips website; AP; "New York Times"; "Grid Magazine"; "Washington Post"