Biden approves Willow oil project, announces new limits elsewhere in NPR-A

CD5, ConocoPhillips’ first oil development within the boundaries of NPR-A. (Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Biden administration announced Monday morning that it will approve the Willow development, a major ConocoPhillips project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Alaska’s congressional delegation celebrated the news.

“Not only will this mean jobs and revenue for for Alaska, it will be a resource that is needed for for the country, and for our friends and allies,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski told reporters.

ConocoPhillips wanted approval for five drilling pads. The Biden administration approved a plan for three drill pads, with more than 200 wells.

The approval comes hours after the administration said it intends to seek “maximum protection” for sensitive areas of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The unusual Sunday night announcement of new Arctic protections seems aimed at softening the blow to Willow opponents — or at least blunting their criticism.

Several conservation groups responded immediately to say the protections are good but don’t outweigh the climate impact of granting the Willow permit.

“No matter what they’re doing with all of these protections, in terms of the special areas or the offshore drilling, it’s not enough if they’re going to permit Willow,” said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska director for The Wilderness Society.

Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola said she agrees with climate advocates that greenhouse gas emissions need to be curtailed and that the world must transition to a new economy based on renewable energy. But, she said, Alaska needs revenue to make the transition.

“And in the meantime, we cannot just shut down our state. Our state is responsible to provide K-12 education, public safety, public transportation, and we barely have the financial resources to meet those needs as it is,” she said. “We need this project.”

The Sunday night announcement from the Interior Department said the administration will propose a new rule seeking additional protection for 13 million acres – more than half the reserve – that are already considered to have high natural and historical value. 

It’s not clear if any of the limits will apply to the 2.5 million acres that are already under lease in the NPR-A. Murkowski said she’s waiting to learn more about the new proposed rules.

Willow has widespread support from Alaska’s political and business establishment. It’s been a top priority of Alaska’s congressional delegation. The Alaska Legislature passed a unanimous resolution asking the Biden administration to approve it. Support is particularly strong in the North Slope Borough. The borough and local governments in the region would gain millions of dollars a year in payments and taxes.

At peak, Willow would boost Alaska’s oil production by 40% over today’s output. It’s projected to remain in operation for 30 years. 

The green section show the area President Obama put off-limits to oil and gas drilling in 2016. President Biden proposes to withdraw the area in brown from consideration as well. (Map: BOEM)

The tribe and city of Nuiqsut, the nearest community to Willow, oppose the project. They cite concerns about pollutants, industrial noise and disruption to the wildlife central to their subsistence way of life.

The administration’s announcement also says President Joe Biden will use executive authority to withdraw 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from potential offshore oil and gas leases. In 2016, President Barack Obama removed nearly the entire Beaufort and Chukchi seas from consideration for leasing. Biden’s action would remove the remaining section – a strip of ocean near the NPR-A.

Correction: An earlier version of this story in one instance referred to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as a “refuge.” It is a reserve.

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

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