Republicans champion Alaska drilling project that poses major climate test for Biden
By Maxine Joselow
House Republicans on Tuesday urged the Biden administration to move forward with a controversial drilling project proposed in Alaska, saying it would bring enormous economic benefits to the region.
Their comments referred to ConocoPhillips’s Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which poses a significant test of the Biden administration’s willingness to block fossil fuel drilling and mining on public lands — activities that account for nearly a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The climate context: As the largest oil and gas project on the horizon in the United States, Willow could have a significant impact on the climate. It would pump nearly 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years — equivalent to the annual emissions of about a third of all coal plants in the country.
The legal context: While Willow was approved in the final months of the Trump administration, the Biden administration initially defended the project in court, angering many climate activists.
However, after a federal judge voided Trump-era permits and approvals for the project last year, the Biden administration declined to appeal the ruling.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is now soliciting public comments on a court-ordered supplemental environmental review of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Climate advocates are urging the administration to conduct a sweeping review of Willow’s climate effects, including its greenhouse gas emissions. They argue that such a review would show the project should not go forward at all.
Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the department has no further comment on Willow beyond its announcement of the public comment period this month.
“As with all public comment periods, all perspectives are welcome,” Schwartz said in an email.
What Republicans and industry are saying
At the House Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday, GOP lawmakers argued that the White House and Democrats have failed to consult with Alaskans who support Willow because of its economic benefits for their communities. The lawmakers urged the Bureau of Land Management to press ahead with Willow, given its potential to fill local coffers.
“Ninety-five percent of the revenues coming into this community come from oil and gas,” said Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.). “Where else are they going to get that?”
As their witness, Republicans called Harry K. Brower Jr., mayor of the North Slope borough, where Willow would be located. Brower testified that he was not consulted before House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland expressing concerns about the project.
Stauber criticized the lack of consultation as “hypocritical,” noting that Grijalva has championed outreach to low-income and minority communities affected by pollution. (The nominal focus of the hearing was Grijalva’s Environmental Justice for All Act, which would require federal agencies to give disadvantaged communities greater involvement in the environmental review process for projects affecting them.)
“The hypocrisy here on this particular project is astounding,” Stauber said. His comments were later echoed by Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.).
According to the Alaska congressional delegation, Willow is expected to generate $10 billion in revenue for state, local and federal governments during its lifespan, along with 2,000 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs.
Rebecca Boys, a spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips, said in an email that the company “remains committed to the Willow project” and is “encouraged by the progress being made toward completion” of a supplemental environmental impact statement.
“Willow is an important project for Alaska with a broad distribution of benefits, and it has strong support across Alaska North Slope communities, the state of Alaska, organized labor and others,” Boys said.
What climate advocates are saying
Climate advocates argue that the Biden administration must conduct a comprehensive analysis of Willow’s climate effects, as demonstrated by two recent court decisions.
In her ruling last year that voided the approval of Willow, Judge Sharon L. Gleason of the U.S. District Court for Alaska wrote that the approval was “arbitrary and capricious” because it failed to account for the full scope of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project.
Similarly, in his ruling last month that invalidated the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history, Judge Rudolph Contreras of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that the Interior Department failed to adequately consider the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico.
Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, told The Climate 202 that these court decisions demonstrate the Biden administration must complete a rigorous analysis of the emissions from Willow. She said such an analysis would show that the project “can’t move forward” because it’s incompatible with Biden’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
As for Republicans’ concerns, Miller emphasized that “all of this work to address the climate crisis has to come with a conversation about what it means to have an equitable transition for fossil-fuel-dependent communities in Alaska. And this conversation has to be about providing a transition for these communities that allows for regenerative economic opportunities.”