Seven things to know about Biden’s big oil move

By Robin Bravender | 03/13/2023 01:37 PM EDT

The Biden administration’s approval of a massive oil and gas drilling project on public lands in Alaska sparked a backlash from environmentalists amid cheers from the state’s congressional delegation.

 Joe Biden

President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House on Jan. 13 in Washington. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Biden administration paired two hot-button decisions on oil drilling in Alaska in recent days — blocking future drilling in the Arctic Ocean while giving the go-ahead to a huge oil drilling project on public lands in Alaska.

The Interior Department’s announcement Monday that it approved ConocoPhillips’ multibillion-dollar Willow project follows decades of industry effort since the oil and gas giant first acquired leases during the Clinton administration.

The White House seemingly sought to muffle environmentalists’ outcry to the Willow decision by announcing new drilling prohibitions in Alaska over the weekend. The project has become a contentious political issue, pitting Alaska politicians who support the project against environmentalists who oppose drilling on public lands.


Monday’s decision likely won’t be the end of the lengthy Willow dispute, as lawsuits challenging the administration’s move are almost certain.

Here’s what to know about the Willow decision:

What’s in the proposal?

The administration approved ConocoPhillips’ plans to drill in the northeast portion of the National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska’s North Slope.

The Biden administration couched its announcement Monday by stressing its approval of a scaled-back version of the drilling plan.

The Interior Department is approving three of the five drill sites proposed by ConocoPhillips. The company is also relinquishing its rights to 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the NPR-A, the administration said.

The decision comes after the project has faced years of delays, litigation and opposition from climate advocates and some Alaska Native leaders.

ConocoPhillips pitched the drilling venture as a way to strengthen domestic energy security by producing about 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak.

What does it mean for Alaska?

Alaska lawmakers and ConocoPhillips have been lobbying the administration to approve the massive drilling project, arguing that it bolsters domestic energy security while creating jobs and revenue for the federal government.

ConocoPhillips estimated that the project would create more than 2,500 jobs during construction, and about 300 permanent jobs after that.

The Alaska congressional delegation hailed the Willow approval as a victory Monday.

“We finally did it, Willow is finally reapproved, and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowsi (R-Alaska). “After years of relentless advocacy, we are now on the cusp of creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues, improving quality of life on the North Slope and across our state, and adding vital energy to [the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System] to fuel the nation and the world,” Murkowski said.

Critics of the project warn that the development will take a toll on a pristine environment in Alaska, jeopardizing the lifestyle of local Indigenous communities and harming the habitat of polar bears and other wildlife species.

Why is it so contentious?

This issue has been thorny for the Biden administration, which has attempted to find a compromise between the vocal Alaska delegation and industry representatives pushing for the development and environmentalists who are furious about the project.

The Alaskans’ all-out push for Willow’s approval even involved a meeting between the state’s full congressional delegation and President Joe Biden during the run-up to the final announcement. Murkowski, Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola were united in their push for the administration to approve an “economically viable” version of the project.

The lawmakers have said that Alaska Natives overwhelmingly support the project. Sullivan said last week that Alaskans who support drilling in the NPR-A often refer to environmental groups in the Lower 48 as being guilty of “eco-colonialism” for trying to tell Alaskans how to live their lives.

But while the administration’s move appears to satisfy Alaskan members of Congress, it outraged environmentalists after Biden promised on the campaign trail that there would be no new drilling on federal lands.

What does it mean economically?

The Willow project is projected to deliver between $8 billion and $17 billion in new revenue for the federal government, the state of Alaska, and North Slope Borough communities, according to ConocoPhillips.

The company hailed the administration’s announcement Monday.

“This was the right decision for Alaska and our nation,” said Ryan Lance, ConocoPhillips’ chair and CEO. “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security, all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities.”

And Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, cheered the decision, saying it would “benefit local communities” and create “union construction jobs with long-term, family sustaining careers.”

Why are environmentalists so mad?

In addition to local impact to wildlife habitat, environmentalists are seething about the climate impacts of the announcement.

“This is a grievous mistake. It greenlights a carbon bomb, sets back the climate fight and emboldens an industry hell-bent on destroying the planet,” said Christy Goldfuss, chief policy impact officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former Obama administration White House official.

“Biden approved Willow knowing full well that it’ll cause massive and irreversible destruction, which is appalling,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Monsell said that people and wildlife “will suffer,” from the project, “and extracting and burning more fossil fuel will warm the climate even faster.”

How is the administration softening the blow to greens?

The administration announced major new efforts to limit drilling in Alaska lands and waters Sunday ahead of its Willow announcement.

The Interior Department said it was indefinitely withdrawing 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean from future oil and gas leases, and the department announced that it’s writing new rules to limit drilling on land in Alaska.

The administration touted Biden’s conservation record as it announced the Willow approval. “In his first year, President Biden protected more lands and waters than any president since John F. Kennedy,” the Interior Department said in a statement.

What’s next?

Lawsuits are likely.

Environmentalists challenged the Trump administration’s 2020 approval of the Willow project, and they’re expected to sue over the Biden administration’s plans as well.

“Even one new oil well in the Arctic is one well too many,” said Monsell of CBD.

“The president has left us in the cold and missed a major opportunity to live up to his climate commitments,” Monsell added. “This project is on weak legal ground, and we’re gearing up for action.”

Reporter Heather Richards contributed.