Biden administration approves controversial Willow oil project in Alaska, which has galvanized online activism

 Environmentalists and some Alaskan Native communities had opposed the plan over climate, wildlife and food-shortage fears

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. Photograph: AP

The Biden administration has approved a controversial $8bn (£6bn) drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, which has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists and some Alaska Native communities, who say it will speed up the climate breakdown and undermine food security.

The ConocoPhillips Willow project will be one of the largest of its kind on US soil, involving drilling for oil and gas at three sites for multiple decades on the 23m-acre National Petroleum Reserve which is owned by the federal government and is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the US.

It will produce an estimated 576m barrels of oil over 30 years, with a peak of 180,000 barrels of crude a day. This extraction, which ConocoPhillips has said may, ironically, involve refreezing the rapidly thawing Arctic permafrost to stabilize drilling equipment, would create one of the largest “carbon bombs” on US soil, potentially producing more than twice as many emissions than all renewable energy projects on public lands by 2030 would cut combined.

In its decision, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management said that the approval “strikes a balance” by allowing ConocoPhillips to use its longstanding leases in the Arctic while also limiting drilling to three sites rather than five, which the company wanted.

But the approval has been met with outrage among environmental campaigners and Native representatives who say it fatally undermines Joe Biden’s climate agenda. In all, the project is expected to create about 260m tons of greenhouse gases over its lifespan, the equivalent of creating about 70 new coal-fired power plants.

“Approving the Willow Project is an unacceptable departure from President Biden’s promises to the American people on climate and environmental justice,” said Lena Moffitt, executive director of Evergreen Action, a climate group.

“After all that this administration has done to advance climate action and environmental justice, it is heartbreaking to see a decision that we know will poison Arctic communities and lock in decades of climate pollution we simply cannot afford.”

The approval came as the interior department announced it was going to ban any future oil and gas drilling in the US Arctic Ocean, as well as protect millions of acres of Alaska land deemed sensitive to Native communities. But the Willow decision has still stirred anger.

“The Biden administration’s approval makes it clear that its call for climate action and the protection of biodiversity is talk, not action,” said Sonia Ahkivgak, social outreach coordinator at the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic group.

“The only reasonable solution to the climate emergency is to deny new fossil fuel projects like Willow. Our fight has been long and also it has only begun. We will continue to call for a stop to Willow because the lives of local people and future generations depend on it.”

Opposition to the project has included more than a million letters sent to the White House, a petition with more than 3 million signatories, and a viral #stopwillow campaign waged on TikTok as well as other social media. The approval of the project is almost certain to face legal challenges.

On Friday, former US vice-president Al Gore told the Guardian that projects of its kind are “recklessly irresponsible” and that allowing it would cause “climate chaos”.

The approval comes after an environmental impact assessment was published last month by the US interior department, which recommended a scaled-back version of the project, reducing the number of sites from five to three, which ConocoPhillips Alaska said it considered a viable option.

“Willow is a carbon bomb that cannot be allowed to explode in the Arctic,” Karlin Nageak Itchoak, the senior regional director at the non-profit Wilderness Society, said after the assessment was published in early February.

According to the Native Movement, a grassroots Alaska-based collective, Willow developers have done little research on the impact of the cumulative projects across the Arctic slope of Alaska – the birthing grounds of the 60,000 Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, which are a historically important food source. Residents of Nuiqsut, the closest Alaska Native community, have spoken out about sick fish, malnourished caribou and toxic air quality, directly caused by existing oil and gas extraction within their homelands.

Approval has come after a long contentious process.

After the project was given the green light by the Trump White House, a federal judge reversed that decision, ruling that an earlier environmental review was flawed.

Alongside the interior department’s February review, officials expressed “substantial concerns” about even the scaled-back plan’s impact on wildlife and Native communities.

Alaska’s two Republican senators and the state’s sole congressional representative, a Democrat, had urged the administration to approve the project, which they say would boost the state’s economy.

Some Alaska Native tribal organizations, including the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope and the Alaska Federation of Natives, have supported the project for similar reasons.

The deal will make it “possible for our community to continue our traditions, while strengthening the economic foundation of our region for decades to come,” according to Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat group.

But environmental groups and tribes including those in Nuiqsut have countered that any jobs and money the project brings in the short term will be negated by the environmental devastation in the long run.

Alaska is at the forefront of the climate breakdown, caused by burning fossil fuels, and communities surrounded by oil and gas operations are already suffering poor air and water quality, health disparities and reduced food sources. The Nuiqsut mayor, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is the closest to the proposed development, is a prominent opponent, who has called the project a “climate disaster waiting to happen”. She said it will negatively affect the livelihoods and health of community members.

Biden suspended oil and gas lease sales after taking office and promised to overhaul the government’s fossil fuels program. However, the administration dropped its resistance to leasing in a compromise over last year’s climate law.

The administration’s continued embrace of oil and gas drilling has caused consternation among Democrats, with two dozen progressive members of Congress recently writing to Biden, warning that the Willow project will “pose a significant threat to US progress on climate issues”. The group called upon the president to block an “ill-conceived and misguided project”.

The Biden administration has offered less acreage for lease than previous administrations. But environmentalists say the administration has not done enough. The US interior secretary, Deb Haaland, in a recent interview declined direct comment on Willow but said that “public lands belong to every single American, not just one industry”.

Increased oil and gas extraction in the Alaska region has already affected caribou populations, which several communities in the area hunt for subsistence.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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