Environmentalists have ramped up pressure on the White House, as US President Joe Biden is poised to decide whether to pull the plug on a massive oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope or allow it to go ahead.
During the 2020 presidential race, the Democratic candidate vowed not to approve any new leases for oil and gas projects on federal lands.
But Biden has found himself stuck in the middle of a years-long battle over the so-called Willow Project, a plan by US energy giant ConocoPhillips to drill for oil in the federally owned National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska’s pristine western Arctic.
The Trump administration approved the Willow Project at the tail end of the former president’s term but it was blocked by a judge for further review.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in an environmental impact analysis in February, approved three drilling sites while striking down one and deferring consideration of another.
ConocoPhillips welcomed the BLM’s assessment, saying it can “provide a viable path forward for development of our leasehold.”
The Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, said, however, it has “substantial concerns,” about the project “including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”
Biden has described global warming as an existential threat and promoted the development of renewable energy sources.
Temperatures in Alaska have been rising faster than in other regions of the planet and environmental groups have warned that the oil extraction project would make things worse.
The Willow Project will add more than 250 million metric tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere over the next 30 years, the Sierra Club said, equivalent to the annual emissions of 66 coal plants.
Greenpeace described it as a “carbon bomb.”
A petition on Change.org seeking to halt the project has garnered more than three million signatures and a #StopWillow campaign on TikTok has drawn 150 million views.
180,000 barrels of oil per day
Backers of the Willow Project defend it as a source of several thousand jobs and a contributor to US energy independence with the production of 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak or some 576 million barrels over 30 years.
Alaska’s two Republican senators and the state’s sole member of the House, Mary Peltola, a native Alaskan and a Democrat, met with Biden last week to urge him to approve the project.
“We hope the President will listen to the voices of indigenous Alaskans who live on the North Slope, the voices of labour leaders and union workers who are ready to help build Alaska’s economy (and) listen to the voices of national security officials underscoring the importance of Willow for American energy security,” they said.
Peltola, in an opinion piece published in The Hill, said Alaskans “aren’t blind to the impacts of climate change” but the Willow Project can serve as a bridge as the country transitions away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources.
“At the same time, we can reduce America’s dependence on foreign sources of oil — which makes us all safer in a world that has grown more unpredictable after Russia invaded Ukraine,” Peltola said.
Biden has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 compared with 2005 with the goal of achieving a net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050.