A controversial Alaska oil project has edged a step closer to approval after the Biden administration indicated support for a slimmed down version of the drilling venture, sparking the ire of environmental groups.
The Bureau of Land Management released a final environmental study for the $8bn Willow project on Wednesday that recommended cutting the scope to three drilling sites from the five initially proposed by its developer, the oil company ConocoPhillips.
The storm surrounding Willow’s approval has underlined the dilemmas facing president Joe Biden, who has pursued an aggressive climate agenda while demanding oil companies increase production to ease fuel prices for consumers.
Wednesday’s long-awaited report — or supplemental environmental impact statement [SEIS] — paves the way for a positive final decision on the project, which is expected within the next month.
“The overall tenor of the SEIS does seem to favour approval subject to a number of conditions,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. But he said it was still “unclear” what decision would ultimately be made by US interior secretary Deb Haaland, who opposed the project as a member of Congress.
The interior department on Wednesday said it still had “substantial concerns” about the project “including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife” and to indigenous Alaskan communities.
Willow would produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil a day, or about 1.3 per cent of current US output. It was initially approved under the administration of Donald Trump but was halted in 2021 after a federal judge deemed the initial environmental review flawed. The Biden administration has defended the project in court.
Environmental groups lashed out at the new bureau review. “The administration’s own findings make clear this project is a carbon bomb. It has no place in our energy future. It should be denied,” said Manish Bapna, chief executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Friends of the Earth criticised it as “incomplete and rushed”, and said approving the project would “banish President Biden’s climate legacy to one of irreparable and downright shameful environmental destruction”.
Under Biden, the US has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 as part of its Paris Agreement pledge. But the president has also repeatedly called on oil producers to pump more oil in order to combat volatile fuel prices.
ConocoPhillips said it was ready to push ahead with the Willow project. Erec Isaacson, president of the company’s Alaska operations, said the company was “ready to begin construction immediately after receiving a viable [record of decision] and full authorisation from all permitting agencies”.
Advancing the project has been a key priority for the Alaskan congressional delegation in Washington. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a centrist Republican, whose support was critical in confirming various members of Biden’s cabinet and wider administration, has made approval a key element of her support.
Murkowski on Wednesday said she would “continue to hold [the administration] accountable to their commitment to see this additional environmental review through so that construction can begin this winter”.