Biden Charts Centrist Path With Alaska ‘Split Decision,’ Critics and Supporters React
WASHINGTON — Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and House members including Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., were among those crying foul on Monday after the Biden administration approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil-drilling project on public land on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope.
In a joint statement the Democratic lawmakers accused the administration of failing to live up to its promises regarding climate change and advancing environmental justice, this despite the fact that the Interior Department on Sunday announced the protection of about 13 million acres of pristine public lands in Alaska from onshore leasing.
“While we acknowledge that the administration also just announced that it is conserving new public lands and waters in the Arctic, 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,” they said.
The decision is the latest example in recent days that President Joe Biden is charting a centrist course as he prepares to launch an expected reelection bid in coming weeks.
Last week, the president’s proposed budget for next year irked many progressives because of the tougher stances it signaled on issues like crime and litigation.
And it was just 10 days ago that 22 progressive Democrats, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., sent a letter to the president, urging him to reject the proposal.
The approval of the project by the Bureau of Land Management allows for three drill sites that together could include up to 199 production and injection wells.
According to ConocoPhillips, which had originally sought five drill sites, the Willow project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, equivalent to about 1.5% of today’s total U.S. oil production.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, has said the massive development project could be “one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in our state’s history.”
The Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, said the final approval reduced the project’s drill pads by 40%, and that the company agreed to give up rights to about 68,000 acres in existing leases within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, near where the Willow site is located.
But critics of the plan, like the lawmakers who put out the statement, say the new activity will dramatically increase the amount of oil passing through the trans-Alaska pipeline and produce the equivalent of more than 263 million tons of greenhouse gases over the project’s 30-year life — equivalent to the combined emissions from 1.7 million million passenger cars over the same time period.
In a sign of just how controversial the announcement was, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s signature does not appear on the decision to greenlight the project. Instead, it was signed by a Haaland deputy, Tommy Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska and has a close relationship with state lawmakers.
Among those joining in the condemnation of the decision on Monday was Christy Goldfuss, chief policy impact officer at the National Resources Defense Council, who said in a statement, “This is a grievous mistake.”
“Willow is a project out of time. With science demanding an end to fossil fuels, this locks in decades more dependence on oil,” Goldfuss continued.
“With the climate crisis worsening by the day, this has the same yearly carbon footprint of roughly 1.1 million homes — more than are in Chicago. With clean energy investment driving a heartland manufacturing renaissance, this stakes our future on the fuels of the past,” she said.
“We support more protection for the unparalleled lands and waters of the Arctic, especially in the ecologically rich western Arctic Reserve,” said Kristen Miller, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League.
“However, this effort must be followed by a rejection of the Willow project to fully be in line with this administration’s commitment to climate, biodiversity, and frontline communities,” Miller said. “The Willow project is designed to open the door to the development of billions of barrels of oil over decades across this biologically rich landscape. We need more than a firewall, we need to put out the fire.
“Rampant oil and gas development on our nation’s public lands must stop now. Conservation efforts must include aggressive action on climate, which includes a fundamental change in the way we deal with oil and gas on public lands — starting in America’s Arctic. We stand with the millions of climate allies who are speaking out against Willow’s unacceptable climate threats, and we will carry this momentum forward. We will not back down until the Arctic is protected, once and for all,” she said.
But there were other voices to be heard on the matter.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on Monday said the Biden administration had done the right thing and said its decision on the Willow project was “very good news for the country.”
“Not only will this mean jobs and revenue for Alaska, it will be resources that are needed for the country and for our friends and allies,” Murkowski said. “The administration listened to Alaska voices. They listened to the delegation as we pressed the case for energy security and national security.”
Another individual expressing gratitude for the decision was Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of Arctic Iñupiat, a nonprofit established in 2015 “to speak with a unified voice on issues impacting the North Slope Iñupiat, their communities, their economy and their culture.”
Members of the organization include local governments, Alaska Native Corporations, federally recognized tribes and tribal nonprofits across the impacted parts of Alaska.
“Today’s decision from the Biden administration to advance the Willow Project consistent with the project’s minimum requirements is an important step for Alaska, Alaska Native self-determination, and for America’s energy security,” Harcharek said.
“The decision reaffirms the widespread support across Alaska Native communities for the carefully designed resource development project and the long-term economic stability it offers for the people of Alaska’s remote North Slope,” he continued.
Harcharek noted that it has been estimated the project will create hundreds of direct jobs and thousands of construction jobs, along with contracting opportunities for Native-owned businesses.
“The Bureau of Land Management itself estimates that Willow will result in approximately $6 billion from federal royalties and state and local taxes,” he said. “For North Slope communities, more than $1 billion in property taxes paid to the North Slope Borough would help provide basic services like education, police, fire protection and more.
“Willow is also projected to add $2.5 billion to the NPR-A Impact Mitigation Grant Program, supporting social services, youth programs and civic facilities throughout our communities,” he said, adding, “We Iñupiat have sustained ourselves in the United States’ most extreme and remote climate for more than 10,000 years by staying true to our time-honored cultural values, including subsistence hunting. … The Biden administration’s [decision] to advance the Willow Project will make it possible for our community to continue our traditions while strengthening the economic foundation of our region for decades to come.”
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue
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