Biden’s climate legacy in jeopardy with Willow oil project approval, furious environmentalists warn
Joe Biden is jeopardising his climate legacy by signing off on a vast oil project in Alaska, environmentalists and members of his own party warned.
Approval of the $8bn Willow Project, on Alaska‘s North Slope, was announced by the Biden administration on Monday.
A statement from the US Interior Department led with the fact that the project had been reduced in size after the government denied two of the five drill sites proposed by US oil company, ConocoPhillips.
The company will also relinquish rights to approximately 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the area, known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The limits create a buffer between oil drilling activities and calving grounds and migratory routes for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, an important subsistence resource for nearby Alaska Native communities, the Biden administration said.
The announcement came on the heels of another notice from the Biden administration which said it would bar or limit drilling across 16 million acres in other areas of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
But the news did little to temper the fury of some Democrats, climate activists and Indigenous groups who said the development flies in the face of Mr Biden’s promise to stop new drilling on public lands, and cut the US carbon footprint in half by 2030.
The project will lock in oil and gas drilling for the next 30 years in a region which is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet.
Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who chairs the environment and public works subcommittee on clean air, climate, and nuclear safety, dubbed the Willow Project an “environmental injustice”.
“This decision not only leaves an oil stain on the administration’s climate accomplishments and the President’s commitment not to permit new oil and gas drilling on federal land, but slows our progress in the fight for a more livable future and puts into harm’s way the neighboring Native Village of Nuiqsut and the Arctic landscape,” the Massachusetts senator said, in a statement.
Earlier this month, Senator Markey, Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva and 20 Democratic colleagues sent a letter to President Biden calling on him to reject the Willow Project.
City of Nuiqsut mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose small community is closest to the proposed development, has been outspoken in her opposition, worried about impacts to caribou and her residents’ subsistence lifestyles.
But there is “majority consensus” in the North Slope region supporting the project, said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the group Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, whose members include leaders from across much of that region, The Associated Press reported.
ConocoPhillips said Willow would produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day at peak, create over 2,500 construction jobs and approximately 300 long-term jobs. Alaska’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said the project was “very good news for the country”.
The Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, has also been quiet on the project, which she opposed as a congresswoman. The Willow Project order was signed by Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska and has ties to state officials.
Environmental non-profit, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said on Monday that it would launch a lawsuit over Willow – again.
CBD and affiliated groups previously sued the Trump administration over the project after it was approved with five drill pads. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) undertook a review after an Alaskan federal court struck down the Trump decision.
Eight government bodies including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of Alaska, and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope were consulted on the plans which attracted more than of 200,000 submissions during the public comment period.
Christy Goldfuss, a member of the Obama administration who is now a policy chief at the Natural Resources Defence Council, said she was “deeply disappointed” at the decision to approve Willow. NRDC estimates the oil site would generate carbon emissions equivalent to more than one million homes.
“Fossil fuels are single-handedly the most damaging contributor to the global climate emergency, especially in the Arctic,” said the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, a grassroots movement of Native Alaskans, said in a statement.
“The true cost of the Willow Project is to the land and to animals and people forced to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water.”
People vs. Fossil Fuels, a coalition of over 1,200 frontline, climate justice, and progressive organizations, also slammed the project.
“Approving a massive new oil drilling project that is estimated to release 280 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses when we are already in a climate emergency is signing away our future,” a statement read.