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Biden administration to consider alternative oil drilling plan in Alaska Reserve

ConocoPhillips’ oil drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska expects to produce over 629 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years but at what cost?

(CN) — The Bureau of Land Management released a final environmental impact statement on Wednesday nudging the Interior Department to grant approval to an “alternative” oil drilling project in Alaska, angering climate advocates who are calling on the Biden administration to keep its promise to battle climate change.

ConocoPhillips Alaska’s oil drilling project, “Willow,” is one of the largest oil and gas developments on federal territory within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — 23.4 million acres of pristine wilderness named as a source of oil for the U.S. Navy in 1923.

The vast area is important habitat for millions of migratory birds, marine mammals like beluga whales and home to the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, critical land for Nuiqsut subsistence hunters. Congress handed management of the reserve to the Department of the Interior in 1976 with the mandate to provide “maximum protection” to the area’s fish and wildlife habitat.

In 2012, the Bureau of Land Management issued an initial environmental impact statement evaluating the effect of selling oil and gas leases on over 11 million acres of the reserve. In 2016, ConocoPhillips found a new cache of oil in the reserve that would mean an additional 130,000 barrels per day — beyond the daily 500,000 barrels that flowed through TransAlaska Pipeline last year.

At the time, BLM’s analysis found that developing the project would be bad for subsistence hunters in the village of Nuiqsut. Now, BLM is recommending the project move forward.

The report released Wednesday morning outlined that if the project is approved, ConocoPhillips may build up to five drill sites, pipelines, a gravel mine site, a central processing facility, an operations center pad, gravel roads, ice roads and ice pads, a module transfer island and — depending on which project alternative chosen — one or two airstrips. To make the project worth the company’s while though, the company would need to build at least three drill sites, which BLM recommends as its “preferred alternative.”

Additionally, BLM outlines that Willow would have a peak production over 180,000 barrels of oil per day over its 30- to 31-year lifespan and would produce up to 629 million barrels of oil. According to ConocoPhillips in a press release Wednesday, the Willow project is expected to deliver $8 billion to $17 billion in revenue for the federal government, the state of Alaska and North Slope Borough communities. The company expects to create over 2,500 construction jobs and 300 long-term jobs as well.

“As a result, we believe Willow will benefit local communities and enhance American energy security while producing oil in an environmentally and socially responsible manner,” said ConocoPhillips president Erec Isaacson in a statement. “After nearly five years of rigorous regulatory review and environmental analysis, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process is almost complete and should be concluded without delay. ConocoPhillips looks forward to a final record of decision (ROD) and is ready to begin construction immediately after receiving a viable ROD and full authorization from all permitting agencies.”

Should the Biden administration approve of the preferred alternative, ConocoPhillips is ready to "immediately initiate" road construction once approvals are in place.

"Planning is currently in progress and mobilization could start as soon as February," Isaacson wrote, adding that additional North Slope construction would continue into the summer and fall.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, are not happy.

“It’s outrageous that Biden seems ready to greenlight the massively destructive Willow project, prioritizing oil industry profits over the future of polar bears and other Arctic wildlife,” said Kristen Monsell, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Letting ConocoPhillips move forward with this dangerous plan breaks Biden’s promise to stop oil drilling on public lands. More fossil fuel extraction will speed up climate change, and the already-melting Arctic permafrost literally can’t support drilling operations in this area. This nonsensical project is a huge step backwards. We urge Biden to reject it in the final decision. And we’ll keep fighting it until it’s scrapped.”

But all the while, officials from the Interior Department stated that BLM’s preferred alternative is not a decision about whether to approve the project, and the department still has substantial concerns regarding direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.

The Biden administration now has 30 days to approve one of BLM’s alternative options, one of which includes taking no action at all.

The Trump administration initially gave way to the oil project in 2020 before Alaska District Court Judge Sharon Gleason vacated BLM’s approval of the project in 2021 for omitting gas emissions from its environmental impact statement and not addressing reasonable alternatives for the project.

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