Biden administration throws support behind massive Willow oil project in NPR-A

An aerial view of one of the exploration pads and wells that ConocoPhillips drilled during the 2018 exploration season at its Willow prospect.
An aerial view of one of the exploration pads and wells that ConocoPhillips drilled during the 2018 exploration season at its Willow prospect. (Judy Patrick Photography / ConocoPhillips Alaska)

The Biden administration has reversed course and is now defending a decision to allow the Willow project, a major oil drilling development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The position was made public Wednesday when the Justice Department filed a legal brief opposing environmental groups in their legal challenge to ConocoPhillips’ project. 

It’s a rare moment of unity between the Democratic administration and Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the decision is good for jobs and good for American energy production.

“So for all the right reasons, the administration came to the right conclusion, and it was the conclusion that we had been arguing vigorously for,” she said.

Environmental groups filed a legal challenge last year to Conoco’s Willow plan, which calls for drilling five wells in the NPR-A and building hundreds of miles of pipelines and ice roads. The groups say the Trump administration didn’t fully consider the environmental impacts.

RELATEDTrump administration approves Conoco’s Willow project in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

At its peak, Willow is expected to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day.

The Biden administration’s decision to fight the environmental lawsuit turns everything on its head.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland broke the news to the Alaska congressional delegation on Tuesday. Just last year, as a congresswoman, Haaland wrote then-President Trump’s Interior secretary objecting to the Willow project. She and other House Democrats said the development would damage nesting areas for endangered birds and cause lasting impacts to caribou.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan is usually highly critical of the Biden administration. In his annual address to the Legislature this month, he talked about doing battle against the administration, among other war metaphors. He said then that the Biden administration has an “anti-Alaska agenda.”

But Thursday, in a call with Alaska reporters, Sullivan praised the olive-branch approach.

“I think having an open relationship where you can reach out to cabinet officials and have frank discussions where they listen, certainly doesn’t hurt our state’s opportunities,” he said.

Sullivan said Haaland told him the administration’s support goes beyond defending the previous administration’s permitting decisions in court.

“I asked her, ‘Are you going to continue to, you know, expeditiously process the additional permits and requirements that will, obviously, be part of this Willow project?’” Sullivan recounted. “And she said yes.”

The administration’s decision to defend Willow has environmental groups feeling betrayed. 

Kristen Miller, acting director of Alaska Wilderness League, said President Biden has shown “bold” and “visionary” leadership in the fight against climate change. 

But, Miller said in a written statement, “the Willow project is the poster child for the type of massive fossil fuel development that must be avoided today if we’re to avoid the worst climate impacts down the road.”

Alaska Wilderness League, one of the plaintiffs in the Willow lawsuit, will continue to fight the project, she said.

Meanwhile, Conoco said it could start producing oil at Willow as early as 2026.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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