Climate activists worried after Biden releases review of Alaska oil project

The Biden administration released a new environmental assessment of a controversial oil project on Alaska’s North Slope on Friday, but declined to reveal whether he was leaning towards approving a project that has faced fierce opposition from environmentalists and that some Alaska Natives feared would disrupt their subsistence way of life.

Climate activists had hoped the administration would sharply cut or end a multibillion-dollar effort by energy giant ConocoPhillips to expand oil infrastructure in Arctic Alaska, a project known as of Willow. Environmentalists say burning all this new fossil fuel would undermine much of President Biden’s climate agenda, which proposes cutting emissions by more than 50% by 2030 from 2005 levels.

But the Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental impact statement evaluated various alternatives and did not express a preference. Alternatives included cutting the number of drill sites – and building none at all – but environmentalists hailed the new assessment as another worrying step on the road to approval. A public comment period now ensues, followed by a final decision.

“We are disappointed to see BLM moving forward with a review of the Willow plan when it is so clearly inconsistent with the goals this administration has set for itself to move away from fossil fuels and avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” said Jeremy Lieb, a lawyer. with Earthjustice, in a statement. “This unique project, which will unleash a staggering amount of climate pollution, threatens to derail us dangerously by undermining urgently needed measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Willow, which was approved in the last year of the Trump administration, would bring hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, and between three to five drilling sites, airstrips, a gravel mine and a new large processing facility, in the tundra and pristine wetlands. of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the largest block of public land in the country. There are only two drilling sites producing oil in the 23 million acre reserve, both managed by ConocoPhillips.

A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips said Friday that it is committed to Willow because “it will provide much-needed energy to the United States, while serving as a strong example of environmentally and socially responsible development that offers ‘significant public benefits’.

Alaska’s political leaders have long backed the project as a way to bolster oil production on the North Slope which has been in decline since the 1980s. With soaring gas prices and supply disruptions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has also faced increasing political pressure to increase production.

Faced with catastrophic climate change, this Alaskan village can’t leave Big Oil

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) described the project as her “top priority” for the administration and said she wants to see construction begin this winter.

“Responsibly developed energy in Alaska benefits both our national security and American families who are facing near-record energy prices,” Murkowski said in a statement.

Following its approval at the end of 2020, the project was quickly challenged in court. Last year, a federal judge ruled that the government had failed to fully consider different project alternatives or assess how burning oil extracted from the ground would warm the planet. As part of this litigation, the judge asked the Ministry of the Interior to carry out an updated environmental review.

Over the project’s three-decade life, Willow is expected to generate 629 million barrels of oil, up from 586 million barrels in a previous estimate.

The new review added more discussion of why climate change is a problem and its costs to society. He mentioned that interior and northern regions of Alaska are projected to warm by 10 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the 21st century, under a high emissions scenario.

The review estimated that the project would generate between 278 and 284 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, depending on the alternative chosen. Environmental groups equated the project’s earlier estimate of 260 million metric tons to emissions produced by 66 coal-fired power plants.

“This is a huge project that they are now disclosing is even bigger,” Lieb said in an interview. “Endorsing it is inconsistent with what the science says needs to be done and what this administration is committed to doing to respond to climate change.”

ConocoPhillips officials also told investors that the infrastructure built for Willow could eventually unlock up to 3 billion barrels of oil. Drilling and fossil fuel extraction on public land already accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Biden administration has sought a balance with its oil policy in Alaska.

Willow would extend ConocoPhillips’ footprint further west across the North Slope, toward Lake Teshekpuk, the largest lake in Arctic Alaska.

In the nearest town of Nuiqsut, the oil industry is already a divisive issue. Some locals say the economic rewards have raised living standards far above other Alaska Native villages, while others see the industry as a source of health problems and poor air quality. . Many residents still depend on hunting and whaling for their livelihoods and fear that more oil rigs and pipelines will push migrating caribou further from the village.

In March, natural gas began leaking from the ground at Alpine, a nearby ConocoPhillips facility. The leak prompted ConocoPhillips to evacuate some 300 of its employees from the site and caused panic in Nuiqsut, prompting several families to flee the area. It has also caused some residents to feel increasingly concerned about a major expansion of the oil industry.

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