A massive oil and gas project in the Arctic sits on a knife’s edge — and along with it perhaps President Joe Biden’s climate legacy — as administration officials weigh whether to approve an $8 billion drilling project on federal lands that’s fiercely opposed by environmentalists.
The Biden administration advanced ConocoPhillips’ Willow project Wednesday, releasing a final environmental review that embraced a constricted version of the project that would still allow drilling of more than 200 wells in the approximately 24-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Still, officials were quick to stress that Willow could be further restricted or even denied in a final record of decision that will be released no sooner than 30 days from the date the environmental analysis is published in the Federal Register.
“Let me just be clear: No decision has been made on this,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a press conference Wednesday while defending the president’s commitment to climate action.
“He continues to deliver on historic climate change action while carrying out the law and meeting our energy needs. Again, no decision has been made yet.”
Observers say the Biden administration insistence that the project is still in limbo in this final stretch shows that the White House is considering multiple factors, including the politics of energy prices and the unique vulnerability of the Arctic region to climate change before it makes a consequential decision.
“I am optimistic that the door is still open,” said Karlin Itchoak, the Alaska senior regional director for the Wilderness Society, which opposes the project. “The administration appears to still be considering further reductions to the size of the project, and still has the opportunity to do the right thing.”
Should the administration block Willow, it would be the first time in history a president has barred drilling for oil and gas on public lands due to climate change. But despite the Biden administration’s focus on climate, the president is still aware of the country’s need for oil and gas and hesitant to be seen as restricting supply, a conundrum that the White House has needed to maneuver around during the last two years, said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate official for then-President Bill Clinton.
“They’re in a difficult position politically,” said Bledsoe, who was director of communications for Clinton’s Climate Change Task Force. “It can be seen by some on the left-hand side that it should be a no-brainer, very easy, but that’s not true. Global oil prices are still high.”
While Willow alone isn’t going to shift global energy prices or significantly impact demand for crude oil, the project is the latest example of how thorny oil and gas politics have proved for Biden.
Biden has backed unprecedented climate policy to ramp up renewable energy like offshore wind and help bolster the development of a domestic electric vehicle industry. But climate activists have slammed the president for allowing oil and gas drilling to continue on federal lands despite a promise to retire the program. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers have been unrelenting in their attacks on the administration for restricting oil and gas leasing — pointing to White House policy when oil prices spiked after the Russian war against Ukraine.
Willow was initially approved in 2020 amid the Trump administration’s push to unleash oil and gas production on federal lands. Just a year later, however, a federal judge kicked the issue back to the Interior Department over a faulty climate analysis.
Interior’s Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday published a final supplemental environmental review to correct those errors, advancing a “preferred alternative” for Willow that would greenlight a scaled-down version of the 30-year drilling project.
That option, which would reduce roads, pipelines and emissions, has the approval of the company, which said Wednesday it would be a “viable path forward for development.”
Support for the Willow project is also entrenched in parts of Alaska, with the state’s congressional delegation and many Alaska Native leaders lobbying for its approval.
“While it has been a long and arduous road to get back to this point, we have pushed hard, as a delegation, and are now just one step away from Willow’s re-approval,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement. “Thousands of good union jobs — and immense benefits that will be felt across Alaska and the nation — will hang in the balance until a positive final decision has been issued.”
But like the White House, Interior was adamant that it could still restrict the project due to “substantial concerns” over Willow’s greenhouse gas emissions and the potential to impact Alaska Native food supply by disrupting caribou herds.
After several years of environmental review, political fighting and court battles, the administration is poised to make or break Willow at last. Here are three areas likely influencing the White House’s decision:
The political winds have shifted dramatically since Biden took office and ordered Interior to reevaluate the Willow project only to later turn around and defend the Trump-era approval in court. But the political pressure could still be the ultimate force guiding the White House’s hand on Willow, some argued.
Some of the pressure that the White House faced when Biden took office has evaporated with a shift on Capitol Hill, possibly freeing up the president’s decision on Willow.
A handful of pro-oil politicians held leverage over Biden when the draft analysis on Willow came out last summer. The administration’s signature clean-energy package was still stalled on Capitol Hill, with the pro-oil Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, from West Virginia, pressuring the president to increase fossil fuel access on federal lands.
Murkowski, too, had some significant clout as a moderate Republican, which she used to pressure the White House to switch out a nominated second-in-command at the Interior Department for one she perceived as more friendly to oil and gas interests.
With a slightly stronger hand in the Senate now with a 51-seat majority, the White House may not worry as much about a backlash if Willow gets denied.
But Bledsoe said the White House is still caught between the reality of oil demand in the country and the perception of how to reduce it. He also maintained that reducing oil and gas supply will fail to deliver the kind of emissions reductions that climate activists might expect.
The administration could score a huge win for its climate bona fides by blocking Willow, which could emit anywhere from 278,036 million to 286,575 million metric tons of carbon emissions over its 30-year lifespan, according to BLM’s analysis.
But it would also run the risk of monkeying with the politics of oil policy, which only last year put immense pressure on the White House when gas prices rose, Bledsoe said.
“This is exactly the type of really hard decision that confronts us during that clean energy transition,” he said. “I’m less convinced that adding one new project is a climate disaster, because the real problem is demand.”
Is compromise possible?
The preferred alternative that the BLM released Wednesday is a compromise option that tries to cut down on the impacts of the oil project while still allowing it to move forward.
But when it comes to Willow, the project’s opponents don’t see room for compromise.
Itchoak said the project must be viewed from the perspective of the Arctic, where temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This has real implications for people living in the region: Villages are facing erosion that could force relocation, thawing permafrost could undermine other communities, and changing weather patterns are affecting the supply of wildlife Alaska Natives depend on for food.
“When your house is on fire, you don’t set the other side of the house on fire,” he said.
Siqiñiq Maupin, director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, warned that completion of the Willow Project would leave residents of the city of Nuiqsut completely surrounded by oil and gas development
“It’s going to create a rural area that has households that primarily rely on subsistence, changing their entire ways of life, while still being remote and inaccessible to places like larger grocery stores,” Maupin said.
The oil project’s supporters aren’t willing to budge much either, nor accept a Willow approval from the administration so restrictive that it could lead to the project’s demise.
Last year, ConocoPhillips said if the White House scaled back Willow beyond the three well sites that would be approved in the “preferred alternative,” it would make the project not viable.
The company has already sunk significant money into Willow, and it represents part of the company’s long-term outlook for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — a largely undeveloped area the size of Indiana where it believes additional oil reserves could still be found. ConocoPhillips’ interest in the NPR-A in part led the Trump administration to try and open additional lands near Willow to facilitate more exploration, a move that was reversed by the Biden administration.
ConocoPhillips has also been clear that it will not make a final investment decision until it knows for sure that Interior will approve Willow in a form that makes sense for the company.
The department’s insistence that it may indeed add more restrictions on Willow before approval hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Murkowski warned the Biden administration in a statement Wednesday to approve Willow without “further limits or extraneous conditions” that could make it nonviable.
The Willow project’s opponents said the agency still had the legal authority to back out of the project altogether.
BLM is required under the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act (NPRPA) to protect surface resources of the petroleum reserve, such as land, water and wildlife, attorneys for environmental groups said.
“It can’t possibly do that by allowing new oil drilling when the surface is literally melting away because of climate change,” wrote Kristen Monsell, a litigator with the Center for Biological Diversity.
However, BLM tends to take a limited view of its own authority, she said, and that became part of its subsequent environmental review.
“That narrow view infected its entire analysis,” she said.
BLM has argued that it is not allowed to strand any economically viable quantity of oil, but the agency is required under the NPRPA to consider and mitigate environmental impacts, said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The final analysis for the project comes after fierce courtroom battles to block Willow from going forward. The agency’s continued consideration of the project despite its expected emissions revealed a broader need for agencies to define when climate emissions become harmful, project opponents said.
Environmental groups had cheered after Judge Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska ruled in August 2021 that BLM’s NEPA review of the project had “serious problems” (Energywire, Aug. 19, 2021).
Her decision required BLM to go back to the drawing board and conduct a new analysis of the project that addressed three main concerns: impacts on foreign greenhouse gas emissions, alternative project designs and legal requirements to provide “maximum protection” for land in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.
The fact that the agency could still go forward with the project after NEPA review isn’t a failure of the environmental law per se, but rather with its implementation, said Alexander.
When it comes to implementing NEPA, it’s challenging to tie specific emission to specific climate impacts, said Alexander, who noted this is a challenge that extends across federal agencies.
“Anyone looking at the climate impacts here can see they’re significant. This is a carbon bomb,” she said. “But there is currently no objective threshold to say how significant they are.”
There is still at least one other roadblock for Willow ahead.
Monsell noted that the project is still missing a new consultation under the Endangered Species Act of the impacts of the project on polar bears, which should be released ahead of the agency’s record of decision.
Trustees for Alaska staff attorney Bridget Psarianos said it was still too early to say whether environmental groups were likely to pursue further legal action against BLM, if the administration moves ahead.
“We need to really take a closer look at the EIS and read BLM’s decision carefully and figure out what our next steps are,” she said.
Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the metric tons of carbon emissions that the Bureau of Land Management estimates will be emitted by the Willow project. Also, the original version incorrectly described the anticipated timing of the Interior Department’s final decision on the Willow project.