The Biden administration has denied reports that it has authorized a key oil drilling project on Alaska’s north slope, a highly contentious project that environmentalists argue would damage a pristine wilderness and gut White House commitments to combat climate crisis.
Late Friday, Bloomberg was first to report citing anonymous sources that senior Biden advisers had signed off on the project and formal approval would be made public by the Interior Department next week.
The decision to authorize drilling on the north slope, if correct, would amount to one of the most symbolically important climate decisions of Biden’s political career and place his administration in conflict with the climate-alert left wing of the Democratic party.
But that pressure is countered by unions and some Indigenous communities in Alaska who say approval of the project would provide economic security in the state beyond the borders of the 9.3m-hectare (23m acres) area of the north slope that is considered the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the US.
But after reports were published, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “no final decisions have been made” on the project and “anyone who says there has been a final decision is wrong”.
Earlier on Friday, former vice-president Al Gore said it would be “recklessly irresponsible” to allow the project to proceed. “The pollution it would generate will not only put Alaska native and other local communities at risk, it is incompatible with the ambition we need to achieve a net zero future,” he said.
Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski said on Friday that a decision was “imminent”. The Republican senator previously called the size of the project “minuscule” and that it has been “meticulously planned” to avoid harm to the environment.
Biden has come under intense pressure from lawmakers and the courts, and high energy prices that have dogged his first term as president after he vowed “no more drilling on federal lands, period” during his campaign.
But White House policy to oppose new oil leases and discourage domestic shale-oil drilling, has also forced its hand in other areas. Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year to urge increases in Saudi production came at a high political cost and was broadly fruitless.
White House approval of “the Willow Master Development Plan”, a multi-billion ConocoPhillips project to drill oil inside the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska would serve as a substantial win for the oil-and-gas industries.
ConocoPhillips has said the Willow plan could provide more than $17bn in revenue for federal, state and local governments and create over 2,800 jobs. It could suck an estimated 600m barrels of oil from beneath the permafrost and, at a projected 180,000 daily barrels of oil, would produce approximately 1.6% of current US production.
Under those figures, the project would also contribute 280m tons of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere when the oil was processed and used across fossil-fuel dependent economy.
Unlike other, small oil and gas leases approved by the White House it would also be one that Biden approves without the force of court or congressional orders.
The oil giant, which reported profits of $18.7bn in 2022, double the previous year, originally requested permits to drill on five locations but later scaled back to three.
ConocoPhillips has said it cannot comment on the decision until it has a formal record.
The Interior Department has previously said it has “substantial concerns” about the Willow project’s impact upon the climate and the subsistence lifestyle of native Alaskan communities – but has completed an environmental review of the development that it said would improve it.
A wave of opposition to the Willow project has included rallies in Washington DC and an online #StopWillow campaign that has garnered more than 3m signatures.
Siqiniq Maupin with the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic has warned that the project would threaten subsistence lifestyle of native communities that rely upon the migration of caribou.
“President Biden continues to address climate change during high-profile speeches and events but his actions are contradictory,” Maupin said.
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