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Biden sign-off on Willow drill deal marks detour from climate goals

Bending to the economic interest in exploiting Alaska's petroleum-rich North Slope, the move undercuts a Biden campaign promise to stop new oil drilling on federal lands.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The largest proposed oil drilling on U.S. public land in decades, an expansive project in Alaska’s northern reaches, won federal approval Monday, bringing the Biden administration a rare round of applause from right-wing members of Congress.

Bureau of Land Management officials signed off on the ConocoPhillips drilling operation known as the Willow project in a 124-page record of decision. Three out of five proposed drilling sites have been approved on the National Petroleum Reserve, federal land that sits atop hundreds of millions of barrels of oil reserves spans some 23 million acres along Alaska’s northern coast.

Delegates to Congress from the Last Frontier applauded the decision.

“Willow is finally reapproved, and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said. “After years of relentless advocacy, we are now on the cusp of creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues, improving quality of life on the North Slope and across our state, and adding vital energy to … fuel the nation and the world.”

Senator Dan Sullivan called the Willow project a critically important one for Alaska’s economy. “This decision is also crucial for our national security and environment," he said in a statement. "Producing much-needed American energy in Alaska with the world’s highest environmental standards and lowest emissions enhances the global environment.”

Alaska’s lone Democratic representative offered the Biden administration plaudits as well.

“Today, the people of Alaska were heard,” Congresswoman Mary Peltola said. “I would like to thank the president and his administration for listening to the voices of Alaskans when it mattered most.”

Another Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who chairs the upper chamber’s energy and natural resources committee, framed the Willow project's approval as a much-needed buttress for U.S. energy security.

Other members of the president’s party were less supportive, however, slamming what they call a setback for the planet.

“The Biden administration has committed to fighting climate change and advancing environmental justice — today’s decision to approve the Willow project fails to live up to those promises,” a coalition of Democratic lawmakers including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey said in a joint statement Monday.

They point to estimates that the Willow project could produce up to 287 million tons of carbon dioxide.

The Interior Department sought to frame its decision meanwhile as a compromise on what could have been a larger drilling project. By rejecting two of the five sites that ConocoPhillips had proposed, the government says it reduced the effort’s total footprint by 40% and lessened its overall harm to the environment.

One day before announcing the approval for the Willow project, the Biden administration set out to designate around 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve as off-limits for oil and natural gas extraction. Separately, the White House is readying to issue an order that would protect around 2.8 million acres of Arctic Ocean.

While applauding these moves, Ocasio-Cortez, Markey and Representatives Raul Grijalva and Jared Huffman were critical of the administration for talking out of both sides of its mouth.

“Split decisions in the face of the climate crisis are not good enough,” the lawmakers said. “This administration clearly knows what the path to a cleaner and more just future looks like — we wish they hadn’t chosen to stray so far from that path with today’s Willow decision. The only acceptable Willow project is no Willow project.”

The Willow project first got the green light in 2020 under then-President Donald Trump, but a federal judge in Alaska had vacated that decision for failure by regulators to take appropriate environmental considerations.

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