President Biden approves controversial Willow Oil Project in Alaska

Mar 13, 2023, 8:37 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2023, 5:38 pm

Willow Project...

FILE - This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope. The Biden administration is weighing approval of a major oil project on Alaska's petroleum-rich North Slope that supporters say represents an economic lifeline for Indigenous communities in the region but environmentalists say is counter to Biden's climate goals. A decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska's Willow project, in a federal oil reserve roughly the size of Indiana, could come by early March 2023. (ConocoPhillips via AP, File)

(ConocoPhillips via AP, File)

Originally Published: 13 MAR 23 09:13 ET
Updated: 13 MAR 23 10:10 ET

    (CNN) — The Biden administration has approved the massive Willow drilling project in Alaska, angering climate advocates and setting the stage for a court challenge.

This story will be updated.

Original story:

The Biden administration is expected to approve the controversial ConocoPhillips Willow oil drilling project in Alaska on Monday after it moved through the administration’s process for months.

The Willow Project would be a decadeslong oil drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government. The area where the project is planned holds up to 600 million barrels of oil, though that oil would take years to reach the market since the project has yet to be constructed.

By the administration’s own estimates, the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year — equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads.

If the administration gives the project the green light, it would be a victory for Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation and a coalition of Alaska Native tribes and groups who hailed the drilling venture as a much-needed new source of revenue and jobs for the remote region.

Its approval would be a major blow to climate groups and Alaska Natives who oppose Willow and argue the project will hurt the president’s ambitious climate goals and pose health and environmental risks. The project has galvanized an uprising of online activism against it, including more than one million letters written to the White House in protest of the project, and a Change.org petition with millions of signatures.

Environmental advocates are expected to challenge the project in court. Environmental law group Earthjustice has been preparing a case against the project and intends to argue the Biden administration’s authority to protect resources on Alaska’s public lands includes taking steps to reduce planet-warming carbon pollution, which the Willow Project would ultimately add to.

The venture is expected to be approved with three drilling pads instead of two, two government sources familiar with the details confirmed.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration had looked at reducing the number of approved drilling pads down to two and boosting nature conservation measures to try to assuage concerns climate and environmental groups had about the project.

But ConocoPhillips and Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation has aggressively lobbied the Biden White House and Interior Department for months to approve three drilling pads, saying the project would not be economically viable with two.

Ultimately, the administration felt they were constrained legally and had few options to cancel or significantly curtail the project — which was initially approved by the Trump administration. The administration determined that legally, courts wouldn’t have allowed them to fully reject the project.

Many oil drilling leases on the site were decades-oil, which the administration felt gave ConocoPhillips certain existing legal rights. Reducing the drill-pads to two would have allowed the company to drill about 70% of the oil they were initially seeking.

Still, the final scope of the project will cover 68,000 fewer acres than what ConocoPhillips was initially seeking, the sources said. And it will come alongside sweeping new protections for up to 16 million acres of land and water in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve that President Joe Biden is expected to announce Monday.

CNN has reached out to ConocoPhillips for comment.

The highly anticipated record of decision for the project is expected to come later Monday morning, one government source said.

This story has been updated with more information.

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President Biden approves controversial Willow Oil Project in Alaska