Climate activists are concerned after Biden released a review of the Alaskan 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 do so to reveal whether it was inclined to approve a project that has met fierce opposition from environmentalists and some Alaska Natives fear it will disrupt their livelihoods.

Climate activists had hoped the government would either severely scale back or end a billion-dollar effort by energy giant ConocoPhillips to expand oil infrastructure in Alaska’s Arctic Arctic, a project called Willow. Environmentalists argue that burning all of these new fossil fuels would undermine much of President Biden’s climate agenda, which proposes cutting emissions by more than 50 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

However, the Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental impact statement evaluated various alternatives and expressed no preference. The alternatives were to reduce the number of wells — and build nothing at all — but environmentalists hailed the new rating as another worrying step on the road to approval. A public comment period follows, followed by a final decision.

“We are disappointed that BLM is continuing to review the Willow Plan when it so clearly contradicts the goals this administration has set out to move away from fossil fuels and avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” said Attorney Jeremy Lieb with Earthjustice, in a statement. “This single project, which will unleash a staggering amount of climate pollution, threatens to derail us dangerously by undermining much-needed action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Willow, approved last year by the Trump administration, would bring hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines and between three and five drill sites, airstrips, a gravel mine and a large new processing plant to the pristine tundra and wetlands of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska , the largest public property in the country. There are only two wells producing oil on the 23-million-acre reservation, both operated by ConocoPhillips.

A spokesman for ConocoPhillips said Friday it is committed to Willow because “it will provide much-needed energy for the United States while serving as a strong example of environmentally and socially responsible development that delivers broad public benefits.”

Alaskan leaders have long supported the project to boost North Slope oil production, which has been declining since the 1980s. With soaring gas prices and supply disruptions due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration also faced mounting political pressure to boost production.

In the face of catastrophic climate change, this Alaskan village cannot give up on Big Oil

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

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

After approval in late 2020, the project was quickly challenged in court. Last year, a federal judge found that the government had not fully considered various project alternatives or evaluated how burning the oil pulled from the ground would warm the planet. As part of that litigation, the judge asked the Home Office to conduct an updated environmental assessment.

During the project’s three-decade life, Willow will produce an estimated 629 million barrels of oil, up from a previous estimate of 586 million barrels.

The new review added more discussion about why climate change is a problem and its cost to society. It was mentioned that the interior and northern areas of Alaska are expected to warm by 10 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit by the late 21st century under a high emissions scenario.

The review estimated that the project would generate between 278 and 284 million tons of carbon dioxide, depending on which alternative is chosen. Environmental groups equated the earlier project estimate of 260 million tons with emissions from 66 coal-fired power plants.

“This is a massive project that they are now announcing is even bigger,” Lieb said in an interview. “The approval is inconsistent with what the science says needs to happen and what this government is committed to doing to respond to climate change.”

ConocoPhillips officials have also told investors that the infrastructure being built for Willow could eventually release up to 3 billion barrels of oil. Fossil fuel drilling and mining on public land already accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Biden administration has attempted a balancing act with its Alaska oil policy.

Willow would extend ConocoPhillips’ footprint further west across the north slope to Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake in Arctic Alaska.

In the nearby town of Nuiqsut, the oil industry is already a divisive issue. Some residents say the economic rewards have raised living standards well above other Alaskan 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 livelihood, and fear that more oil rigs and pipelines will push the migrating caribou further out of the village.

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

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