Biden closes Arctic to oil — after Willow

By Heather Richards | 03/13/2023 07:00 AM EDT

The Biden administration — which is expected to approve the massive Willow project in the Arctic — said Sunday it will move on protections against further oil and gas drilling in the region.

An exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of ConocoPhillips' Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope.

This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope. ConocoPhillips/AP Photo

As the Biden administration signaled it could soon approve a massive oil project on public lands in Alaska, President Joe Biden on Sunday declared the entire Arctic Ocean off-limits to oil and gas leasing.

As part of a “fire wall” against future drilling in the far north, the White House announced it is also preparing to overhaul management of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), expanding protections in a large portion of the 24-million-acre swath of public lands in the Arctic.

Biden’s sudden conservation announcements arrive as the Interior Department is poised to greenlight ConocoPhillips’ contentious Willow project in the NPR-A, bucking a concerted effort over recent weeks from environmental groups, climate activists and some Alaska Native leaders to block the project. Since Friday, several news organizations have reported that the White House is expected to approve the project in Alaska’s North Slope.


In approving the $8 billion development in some form, the White House would be siding with oil advocates in the fierce political divide over whether climate change should dramatically reshape how the nation manages its vast oil and natural gas wealth.

Biden has made international commitments to draw down methane and carbon pollution in the United States, support the build-out of clean energy like offshore wind, and supercharge the growth of electric vehicles in the country.

But the president has proved more ambivalent about decreasing oil production on public lands, even as his administration has taken hits from Republican lawmakers for not doing enough to boost domestic oil and gas.

An administration official implied Sunday night that the president faced limited choices when it came to Willow. The official emphasized discussions about the project have focused on the Biden administration’s “legal constraints to stop or substantially limit Willow, given ConocoPhillips has held some leases for decades.”

This limited the administration’s options, the official said.

But the potential trade-off was immediately greeted with skepticism from environmental groups that have lobbied tirelessly to get Biden to reject Willow.

“The benefits of these protections can be undone just as quickly by approval of oil and gas projects on public lands, and right now, no proposal poses a bigger threat to lands, wildlife, communities, and our climate than ConocoPhillips’ Willow project,” said Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program director, in a statement. “Oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters must end — full stop. The eyes of the world are watching.”

The Biden administration’s new Arctic conservation plans include declaring 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea indefinitely off-limits to new oil and gas leasing. That would amount to an expansion of an Obama administration decision in 2016 to make most of the Beaufort Sea and all the Chukchi Sea planning areas — divisions of the Arctic Ocean — off-limits to oil and gas, according to a Sunday press release from the Interior Department.

A federal oil sale hasn’t been held in the Arctic Ocean since 2007.

In the NPR-A, the Biden administration outlined additional protections for 13 million acres of the reserve to limit oil and gas leasing, which would apply to the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay special areas. The NPR-A protections would bar offshore oil and gas pipelines from landing in the reserve near the Teshekpuk Lake.

The Interior Department on Sunday said it will initiate a rulemaking to move forward with the protections.

A compromise plan

A decision on Willow is expected from the Interior Department soon, the administration official said.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre denied on Friday that Willow’s approval was a done deal.

But a green light for Willow has long been a distinct possibility. This was reaffirmed earlier this month when the White House floated a potentially scaled-back project approval as a compromise between environmental groups and oil and gas supporters on Capitol Hill. As part of that deal, the White House suggested they would issue additional conservation measures in Alaska.

That avenue was resoundingly rejected by both prominent environmentalists — who wanted to see Biden kill the project outright — and Alaska’s bipartisan delegation — who said shrinking the scope of the development would make it economically not viable (Greenwire, March 2).

One environmentalist who spoke to E&E before the latest volley of reports on Willow’s potential approval — and was granted anonymity because they couldn’t speak on the record for their organization — said greens have been “bracing for bad news.”

“The administration isn’t telling us anything solid, but people reading body language and tone in meetings with administration officials are feeling like the [record of decision] will surely approve Willow at some scale, but how much it might be scaled back [if at all] is unclear,” that person said.

A Willow approval could reflect the White House’s “wartime fossil fuel pragmatism,” an uneasy embrace of domestic oil and gas production in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year that sent fuel prices skyrocketing and shook the global balance of oil supply and demand, analysts at ClearView Energy Partners LLC said in a note Sunday.

“We have characterized this rhetorical dualism as a call for ‘one last fossil bender before America goes green and sober,’” the analysts wrote.

In approving the project, the president would be breaking with many members of his own party and voting base who view Willow as not only a new oil investment but a retreat from Biden’s 2020 campaign commitment to rein in oil on public lands.

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an environmental lawyer on public lands issues, said Sunday on Twitter that the Interior Department’s “vision + ambition to take climate action commensurate to the scale of the climate crisis — and to safeguard public land + communities — has, since @POTUS’ inauguration, been a steady walk-back of promises.”

In response to questions about Willow, the White House over the weekend defended the president’s climate record and the course the administration is currently on, one of investing in ways to transition the country away from fossil fuels via dramatically increasing alternatives, like renewable energy and EVs.

“This approach has not changed,” a White House official said, noting that Biden has set goals to cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, not this year.

“That has always meant that oil will continue to be a part of the energy mix in the short term while we shore up domestic clean energy production for the long term,” the official said.

That perspective is echoed to some degree by experts on the energy transition, but how much new oil and gas can be identified and exploited if the nation — and world — are to meet carbon-neutral goals is a matter of debate.

The International Energy Agency and other international organizations have said developing new oil and gas fields would be incompatible with staying below the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold of global warming, beyond which climate impacts are forecast to be increasingly severe.

A boon or climate disaster?

Willow has long been a thorny project for the Interior Department. Approved in the last year of former President Donald Trump’s term, the project faced immediate litigation over its environmental review.

A federal judge would ultimately agree with environmentalists who said the climate accounting in the review was faulty, but not before the newly elected Biden administration had taken the surprising stance of defending the project in court.

When a federal judge ultimately revoked Willow’s approval in 2021, the Biden administration committed to amending the environmental review to address deficiencies.

Interior last month released a final review that identified a “preferred alternative” that would approve three drilling locations, enough to support roughly 200 wells over the project’s 30-year life.

The White House said at the time that it had not yet made a final decision on the project.

Environmentalists intensified their lobbying campaign, including taking to TikTok and other social media platforms. Influencers active on climate change issues decried the project for a lifetime of emissions from the oil and gas produced by Willow, which the Center for American Progress estimated would equal the annual emissions from a third of this country’s coal-fired power plants (Energywire, March 7).

Alaska Natives are divided on the project. The village of Nuiqsut, the closest settlement to the Willow project, has consistently lobbied against it, with leaders saying they are worried about environmental impacts on their community, as well as on the caribou and other animals that people who live in the village hunt for survival.

The president was urged to approve by influential politicians like Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and conservative West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, who’ve insisted that oil remain not just a possibility but a priority on public lands. Early Friday, Manchin yanked his support for a senior Biden nominee at Interior over the department’s perceived anti-oil policies (Greenwire, March 10).

“We all recognize the need for cleaner energy, but there is a major gap between our capability to generate it and our daily needs,” Murkowski wrote in a CNN op-ed Friday, along with new Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola and Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, both from Alaska. “We need oil and compared to the other countries we can source it from, we believe Willow is by far the most environmentally responsible choice.”

On its own, Willow doesn’t change the oil production picture for the U.S., the largest oil producer in the world. But the project is significant in Alaska because it was viewed as part of a so-called renaissance on the state’s North Slope. It’s one of a handful of large oil and gas discoveries in the region in recent years that could help slow the decline of Arctic production that undergirds the state’s economy and delivers direct income to all Alaska citizens in the form of annual checks

Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, an Alaska Native organization that supports the project, said news reports of an imminent approval are “encouraging, albeit not final news for the Iñupiat communities on Alaska’s North Slope.”

“We hope between now and the final [record of decision], the administration continues to listen to the elected Iñupiat leadership from the North Slope of Alaska, heeding the strong support for Willow across our state, instead of bowing to the will of outside groups with no ties to our land, heritage, or people,” Harcharek wrote in a statement.

ConocoPhillips declined to comment until a final decision is announced. But the company has argued that Willow was subject to extensive environmental review and has been scaled back from its original proposal to lessen its footprint.

Willow has also been a critical oil project for proponents of expanding development in the region because it could pave the way for additional discoveries and exploration in the NPR-A, the largest contiguous swath of public lands in the United States. It is unclear how the Biden administration’s move to expand protections there could curb that kind of future expansion.

Reporters Emma Dumain, Kelsey Brugger and Robin Bravender contributed to this story. 

This story also appears in Climatewire.