US President Joe Biden’s administration will approve a controversial oil drilling project in Alaska, news reports say, a day after a series of protections against energy exploration were announced for the northern state and the Arctic.
A decision is expected to be announced Monday, unnamed officials were quoted as saying by the New York Times and Reuters news agency. On Friday, the White House pushed back on reports that Biden will authorise the project as soon as this week, saying a decision had not been made yet.
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The $8bn Willow project, led by energy giant ConocoPhillips, would be located inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a 9.3 million-hectare (23 million-acre) area on the state’s North Slope that is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States.
Announced in January 2017, it is expected to produce about 600 million barrels of oil equivalent over its life, peaking at 180,000 barrels per day, ConocoPhillips said on its website.
‘Indefinitely off limits’
On Sunday, the US Department of Interior unveiled actions to make nearly 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean “indefinitely off limits” for oil and gas leasing, building on an Obama-era ban and effectively closing off US Arctic waters to oil exploration.
In addition to the drilling ban, the government will put forward new protections for more than 5.3 million hectares (13 million acres) of “ecologically sensitive” special areas within Alaska’s petroleum reserve, the administration said in a statement.
The new moves come as Biden tries to balance his goals of decarbonising the US economy and preserving pristine wilderness with calls to increase domestic fuel supplies to keep prices low.
Willow has support from the oil and gas industry and state officials eager for jobs but is fiercely opposed by environmental groups who want to move rapidly away from fossil fuels to combat climate change.
‘Doesn’t make sense’
Climate activists have rallied against the project calling it a “carbon bomb” that would be a betrayal of Biden’s campaign pledges to curb new oil and gas drilling.
An environmental group said the new protections announced on Sunday did not go far enough and the government should stop oil and gas developments to help fight climate change.
“It’s insulting that Biden thinks this will change our minds about the Willow project,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn’t make sense, and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project.”
Meanwhile, Alaska politicians, unions and Indigenous communities have pressured Biden to approve the project, saying it would bring much-needed jobs and billions of dollars in taxes and mitigation funds to the vast, snow-and-ice-covered region nearly 965km (600 miles) from Anchorage.
Republican Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan called Willow “one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in our state’s history”.
Biden’s decision on Willow will be one of his most consequential climate decisions and comes as he gears up for a likely reelection bid in 2024. A decision to approve Willow risks alienating young voters who have urged stronger climate action by the White House and flooded social media with demands to stop the Willow project.
Approval also could stir protests similar to those against the failed Keystone XL oil pipeline during the Obama administration.
Rejection of the project would meet strong resistance from Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation, which met with top officials at the White House in recent days to lobby for the project.