The Biden administration has dismissed reports that it has approved a major oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, a highly controversial project that environmentalists argue would damage a pristine wilderness and undermine the White House’s commitments to address the climate crisis.
Late Friday, Bloomberg was the first to report, citing anonymous sources, that senior Biden advisers had signed the project and formal approval would be released by the Home Office next week.
The decision to authorize drilling on the North Slope, if correct, would amount to one of the most symbolically important climate decisions of Biden’s political career, and put his administration at odds with the climate-conscious left wing of the Democratic Party.
But those pressures are being countered by unions and some Alaskan Indigenous communities, who say approving the project would give the state economic security beyond the confines of the 9.3-million-acre northern slope area, which is said to be the largest undisturbed area public land in the US.
But after reports came out, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that “no final decisions have been made” about the project and “anyone who says there has been a final decision is wrong.”
Earlier Friday, former Vice President Al Gore said it would be “recklessly irresponsible” to go ahead with the project. “The pollution that would result will not only endanger Alaska Natives and other local communities, it is inconsistent with the ambition we need to achieve a net-zero future,” he said.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said Friday a decision was “imminent.” The Republican senator previously called the project’s size “tiny” and that it was “meticulously planned” to avoid environmental damage.
Biden has come under intense pressure from lawmakers and the courts, and high energy prices have haunted his first term as president after pledging during his campaign “to stop drilling on federal land, period.”
But the White House policy of discouraging new oil leases and discouraging domestic shale oil drilling has caught on in other areas as well. Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year to call for an increase in Saudi production came at a high political price and was largely unsuccessful.
White House approval of the Willow Master Development Plan, a multi-billion dollar ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, would be a significant win for the oil and gas industry.
ConocoPhillips said the Willow Plan could generate more than $17 billion in revenue for federal, state and local governments and create over 2,800 jobs. It could suck an estimated 600 million barrels of oil from the permafrost and would produce about 1.6% of current US production at an estimated 180,000 barrels of oil per day.
Among those numbers, the project would also contribute 280 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere if the oil were processed and used in a fossil-fuel dependent economy.
Unlike other small oil and gas leases approved by the White House, this would also be one that Biden would approve without the force of court or congressional orders.
The oil giant, set to report $18.7 billion in profit in 2022
ConocoPhillips said it could not comment on the decision until it had a formal record.
The Department of the Interior has previously said it has “significant concerns” about the Willow project’s impact on the climate and livelihoods of native Alaskan communities – but has completed an environmental assessment of the development, which it said would improve it.
A wave of opposition to the Willow Project has led to rallies in Washington DC and an online campaign #StopWillow that has garnered more than 3 million signatures.
Siqiniq Maupin of the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic has warned that the project would threaten the livelihoods of local communities who depend on migrating caribou.
“President Biden continues to address climate change in high-profile speeches and events, but his actions are contradictory,” Maupin said.