A massive oil and gas project in the Arctic sits on a knife’s edge — and along with it perhaps President Joe Biden’s climate legacy — as administration officials weigh whether to approve an $8 billion drilling project on federal lands that’s fiercely opposed by environmentalists.
The Biden administration advanced ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, releasing a final environmental review that embraced a constricted version of the project that would still allow the drilling of more than 200 wells in the approximately 24-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The ConocoPhillips Willow project would be one of the largest oil and gas developments on federal territory and its approval runs counter to the president’s ambitious climate goals.
An environmental assessment released by the interior department on Wednesday recommends a scaled-back version of the project ConocoPhillips originally proposed, and would produce about 600m barrels of oil over 30 years, with a peak of 180,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
The Interior Department released a final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the proposed project, relying again on hasty and deficient analysis to assess the impacts that it would have on local communities, Arctic land and water and animals, and the global climate, according to a coalition of groups led by Greenpeace, which said the Biden administration should deny permits when it issues a final decision.
Officials stressed that Willow could be further restricted or even denied in a final record of the decision that’s required within the next 30 days as environmentalists mounted fierce opposition to the plan.
Overwhelming public and scientific input have demonstrated the threat this proposal poses to the Arctic region and the people and animals who live there.
“The Biden administration’s decision to back ConocoPhillips’ massive oil and gas project in Alaska is a betrayal of the environmental movement,” said New Jersey progressive leader Lisa McCormick. “This project will harm Native American communities and have adverse impacts on air, water, wildlife, and climate stability.”
“Locking in 30 years of fossil fuel production in this location without credible public input,” said McCormick. “The Arctic is already suffering from climate change, and although President Biden has said our nation needs to transition away from fossil fuels, his action reminds me that talk if cheap.”
“Willow is so bad that this single project will erase all of President Biden’s renewable energy progress on public lands and make his ambitious climate and public lands protection goals difficult to achieve,” said Peter Winsor, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League. “It’s also just the start for this region of the western Arctic. Oil giant ConocoPhillips has stated that Willow is just the beginning. Willow would anchor our nation to Alaskan oil for decades, just as scientists say we need to switch to renewable energy.”
ConocoPhillips’s proposed $8 billion oil development in Alaska has been called a “carbon bomb” and a caribou killer. Now, climate activists fear it will contribute to another growing threat.
A 2022 study showed that the northern polar region has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the world over the past 43 years, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification.
The Earth is approximately 1.1℃ warmer than it was at the start of the industrial revolution but the polar region is around 3℃ warmer on average than it was in 1980.
Should permafrost thawing accelerate, there is the potential for a runaway positive feedback process, often referred to as the permafrost carbon time bomb. The release of previously stored carbon dioxide and methane will contribute to further Arctic warming, subsequently accelerating future permafrost thaw.
ConocoPhillips has been polluting and developing Alaska’s extensive North Slope oil resources since 1965.
A days-long natural gas leak has forced a partial evacuation at a drill site in ConocoPhillips’ Alpine oil field, one of the biggest oil fields in North Slope, Alaska.
According to ConocoPhillips’ own analysis, an estimated 7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas was released into the atmosphere during the first five days of the leak, equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of over 3,000 cars.
ConocoPhillips explained that the heat generated by the injection of drilling fluids deep underground had thawed the permafrost layer — ground that had been frozen for thousands of years — to a depth of about 1,000 feet, which ultimately allowed the gas to reach the surface.
According to an analysis by researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, more than half of the near-surface permafrost on the North Slope could disappear by 2100 if emissions aren’t curbed. Soil temperatures at Prudhoe Bay, which is about 60 miles east of Nuiqsut, have already warmed by about 6 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1970s.
If approved, the Willow Project would construct up to 250 wells, two airstrips, and a network of gravel roads, pipelines, plus a new central processing facility in a remote, ecologically sensitive corner of the Arctic.