As White House advances Willow oil project, advocates uneasy about Biden administration’s ‘mixed messages’

WASHINGTON — As it advanced the proposed Willow oil project this month, the Biden administration hedged on whether it will give final approval to ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion prospect, causing trepidation among its advocates in Alaska.

The Bureau of Land Management on Feb. 1 released a final environmental review for the project, located on federal land in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The review proposes an alternative that includes three drilling pads, down from the five ConocoPhillips initially sought.

The Interior Department said in a statement that it has “substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final SEIS, including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”

The statement also said Interior may choose a different alternative, defer additional drill sites or block the project entirely in its final decision.

During a White House media briefing, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre emphasized that the announcement was not the Biden administration’s last word on the project.

“Again, no decision has been made yet,” Jean-Pierre said. “... The final decision is going to be made by the Secretary of the Interior, but this is a president that has been committed to climate change and you see that, again, in his actions.”

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, a group representing Alaska’s oil companies, expressed frustration with what it called the Interior Department’s “worrisome mixed messages.”

“While they issued a Supplemental EIS for an environmentally sound project that has been in the permitting process for 69 months, DOI officials suggest the final record of decision could look substantially different, which could ultimately deny the project,” said Kara Moriarty, AOGA president and CEO.

The Biden administration is facing intense pressure from environmental groups to halt the project. Some leaders of Nuiqsut, the village closest to the proposed drilling site, are also protesting the development. The project has support from Alaska’s congressional delegation, Alaska’s Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the North Slope Borough and the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the environmental review balances ConocoPhillips’ economic goals with environmental sensitivities, but she also took note of the Biden administration’s language.

“I’m a little concerned that they chose to place the red flags out there,” Murkowski said of the Interior Department’s statement.

“But I think this is just a notice to Alaskans that we got 30 days to just remind the administration the value of the jobs that will be created, the value to the Native people in the region, who will see the direct benefit from the economic activity.”

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Murkowski also expressed a fear that the Biden administration could ultimately approve a limited project that is no longer economically viable so that they can “have it both ways.”

“If this is a situation where it’s designed to slowly kill the project without the administration directly saying so, that’s wrong,” Murkowski said. “It’s a travesty. And believe you me, I’m gonna fight it every step of the way.”

Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, a vocal supporter of the project, said that the Bureau of Land Management selecting the three-pad alternative E is a “good thing.” However, she is “waiting with bated breath” for the administration’s official decision, which is due no sooner than early March.

“It’s interesting, trying to figure out how to take that exactly,” Peltola said of the Interior Department’s messaging.

“They didn’t make any commitments to it staying the alternative choice E,” she said.

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said that he plans to call upon elected officials to advocate for the Willow project approval during his speech to the Alaska Legislature scheduled for next week.

“We need to lift our voices to make sure that we’re not drowned out to the opponents of this project,” Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, environmental groups like the Alaska Wilderness League are redoubling their calls for the Biden administration to block the project, focusing on Willow’s potential climate impact.

“We are calling on President Biden to reverse course on this massive climate disaster,” executive director Kristen Miller said in a statement. “Our window to act is rapidly closing to avert catastrophic climate change, and this plan only takes us one giant step closer to the edge.”

02/17/2023 - 3:05pm