The Alaskan Arctic is a test case for the Biden administration’s climate agenda. An oil company proposes a 30-year development that would pump more then half-a-billion barrels from an ecosystem that is rapidly warming.
Climate advocates say the Willow project, planned by ConocoPhillips, is incompatible with President Joe Biden’s goal of setting the nation on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050, and are calling on him to reject the proposal.
While Willow was approved in the final months of the Trump administration and was initially defended by the current administration, a federal judge in Alaska vacated the project’s approvals in August, sending it back to the approving agencies for review.
“We’ve been clear from the beginning that it’s an unacceptable project,” said Jeremy Lieb, a senior associate attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that represented advocates in one of two lawsuits that led to the August ruling.
Because the Arctic is warming so rapidly, and because Willow would produce oil for decades, ConocoPhillips has proposed installing “chillers” underground to fend off increased thawing in the permafrost that would undergird the project’s roads, pipelines and processing plant.
“We can’t afford to burn the oil that it will produce, and it will have really serious consequences for the people, wildlife and landscape where it will be built,” Lieb added. “Allowing it to move forward really is not consistent with what this administration has promised on climate, environment and just general, science-based decision making.”
Biden was elected with a bold promise to stop federal oil and gas development. But he has struggled to reconcile his long-term goal of eliminating fossil fuels with the demands from industry and Republicans to carry on as before. Biden canceled Keystone XL’s pipeline in one his first official acts. But he allowed the replacement of the Line 3 project and its expansion months later. The Interior Department suspended all new leasing on federal lands at first, but a lawsuit halted that policy. In a lease sale, more than 80 million acres were opened up by the administration in the Gulf of Mexico.
Biden suspended oil and natural gas activity in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last year. This land was previously off limits to energy development but was opened up under the Republican tax legislation, which was passed in 2017. But the administration also supported the Willow project in the lawsuits brought by activists, though it declined to appeal the judge’s August ruling.
The Bureau of Land Management (or BLM) announced this month that it would return to an Obama-era management program for Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. This 23 million-acre area on the North Slope is open for drilling for decades. It includes the proposed Willow Project. Trump’s administration had approved a new management plan which would have allowed oil-and-gas development to take place on more than 80 per cent of the land. BLM will now revert the plan to allow drilling on half of the reserve.
Environmental advocates welcomed the move. However, it does not impact Willow’s future.
Willow has strong supporters, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska Republican), who has pressed Biden’s administration to allow the project proceed. Although oil production provides significant revenue to the state, it has been declining for years. The Willow project could produce nearly 30 percent of the current state production, at its peak, and up to 130,000 barrels a day. Murkowski is one of few Republican senators to have expressed some support for climate legislation. He is therefore a potential ally for President Obama in Congress as he seeks to save his domestic agenda.
In a written response to questions, Richard Packer, a BLM spokesman, said that the bureau was conducting outreach with tribes, Alaska Native corporations and environmental organizations to complete a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for the Willow project that it expects to release “in the coming months.”
While the Biden administration could try to strike a compromise by limiting the Willow project’s scope or imposing additional environmental protections, some environmental advocates say anything but a complete denial of the project would be a betrayal.
Andy Moderow, state director at the Alaska Wilderness League, called Willow a “legacy setting project” for Biden, because it would produce a large volume of oil from a sensitive habitat for decades.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads,” Moderow said, “where the world acknowledges climate change, our country is back to acknowledging climate change, and I think this project fits the bill for a question of whether we’re actually going to change direction or not during the Biden administration.”
Environmentalists Worry Willow Could Open Up New Areas For Drilling
The Willow Master Development Plan lies about 36 miles from the mostly-Indigenous village of Nuiqsut, and its construction would include pipelines, roads, a processing facility and up to five drill “pads,” each of which could host up to 50 wells. The project could produce 590 million barrels over 30 years.
Environmental groups warn that Willow could open new areas for exploration because it would allow roads and pipelines to be extended further into the petroleum reserves. 88 Energy, a company based in Australia, has drilled exploratory holes into a field it believes could produce at least hundreds to millions of barrels per day.
Nuiqsut’s residents claim that oil activity is threatening their way to live. They claim that flames burn throughout the night and that fumes drift into the town. Some believe that pollution from development has contributed towards respiratory illness and other illnesses.
Many of the town’s residents rely on subsistence hunting of fish, whales and caribou, and worry that the Willow project would worsen the industry’s impacts on wildlife and ecosystems. Siqiñiq Maupin, an Iñupiaq activist in Fairbanks whose mother and other family members live in Nuiqsut, said that since oil development picked up in the region, people have noticed black marrow in caribou bones, green meat and dead fish floating to the waters’ surface.
“The Willow Master Development Plan is going to make this much worse,” she said.
Maupin is the director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, a grassroots advocacy group that is the lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits that challenged Willow. The organization’s acronym, SILA, translates as “breath of life,” she said.
“When you are in the cold and you can see the fog leaving your breath, that is sila, and it connects us to the rocks, the water, the plants,” she said. “So that’s kind of the basis of our organization, is remembering those old traditions, that we’re not above or below any part of this Earth.”
Maupin and others who have criticised the project claim that Trump administration has rushed its approval. For example, they scheduled a public comment period in the midst of a surge in Covid-19 case filings. Residents who wanted comment had to attend a virtual hearing. Some claimed that Interior Department officials muted them as they tried to speak.
In August, Judge Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court in Alaska ruled that reviews conducted by the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to assess the project’s impacts on climate change and polar bears or to adequately consider alternative options for development.
Rebecca Boys, a ConocoPhillips spokeswoman, said the company is working with federal agencies and remains committed to Willow “as the next significant North Slope project,” but does not expect to make a final decision on whether to proceed until next year.
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Lieb of Earthjustice stated that the plaintiffs would like for the administration to open a new period for public comment and conduct comprehensive assessments. He stated that BLM officials had indicated they are instead performing a narrower review and not allowing for public comment.
Packer, a spokesperson for the BLM, stated that public meetings would be held and that a comment period would be available after the release of the draft impact statement. This would be considered in the final decision.
“It was a rushed, inadequate approval by the previous administration trying to get this out at the last minute before they left office,” Lieb said. “Because the district court decision vacated the entire approval, the Biden administration has the opportunity to do this right.”
Advocates claim that if the Biden administration approves this project, it will allow the development of an Arctic oil field. This is at a time when scientists and the International Energy Agency believe there is not enough money to invest in new fossil fuel projects. Many advocates believe that this project is the best way to abandon oil if the world wants to reduce its use.
Source: Inside Climate News