The Biden administration is soon set to approve ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, a major oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, according to a congressional source familiar with the details. The decision will be announced next week, the source confirmed.
The expected approval is 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. It is a major blow to climate groups and Alaska Natives who oppose Willow, arguing the project will hurt the president’s ambitious climate goals and pose health and environmental risks.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre pushed back Friday, saying no final decision on the project had been made, and that the US Department of the Interior would make an “independent decision on the Willow Project.”
“No final decisions have been made – anyone who says there has been a final decision is wrong,” Jean-Pierre said. “President Biden is delivering on the most aggressive climate agenda of any US president in history and spurring an unprecedented expansion of clean energy.”
An Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment. Dennis Nuss, a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips, told CNN that no record of a decision about the Willow project had been shared with the company and was unable to comment.
It was not immediately clear if the administration had approved a version of the project with three drilling pads, or a smaller version with two drilling pads. Earlier this month, White House officials had floated the option of a smaller, two drill-pad project to try to assuage the concern of environmental groups. And in the final weeks and days leading up to the project’s approval, multiple finished versions of a record of decision had circulated among White House and Interior staff, the source said.
White House senior adviser on climate and clean energy implementation John Podesta told CNN on Thursday the White House climate office has “stayed in touch” with the Interior Department on the project but insisted Interior would make the final decision.
Last Friday, Alaska’s congressional delegation met with Biden and senior White House and Interior staff. During the meeting, Alaska lawmakers argued the oil drilling project represented a just transition away from fossil fuels toward clean energy and said it would benefit Alaska Native communities on the remote North Slope – where food and fuel are incredibly expensive.
“We made our case,” Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, told CNN. “They were in listening mode, for the most part.”
The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the federally owned area where the project is planned, holds up to 600 million barrels of oil. By the administration’s own estimates, the Willow 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.
Alaska Natives supportive of the project have said it would help bring much-needed jobs and revenue to the remote region, as well as help bring astronomical costs for fuel down.
Nagruk Harcharek, president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, said at a recent news conference the project had “majority consensus” among Alaska Natives on the North Slope. “We utilize the jobs that projects like this provide,” Harcharek said. “[They] provide income for the families on the North Slope.”
Other Alaska Natives living closer to the planned project, including city officials and tribal members in Nuiqsut, have said they are deeply worried about the health and environmental impacts of a major oil development so close to their village.
Environmental advocates are expected to challenge the project in court. Environmental law group Earthjustice has been preparing a case against the project; their legal rationale includes saying the Biden administration’s authority to protect surface resources on Alaska’s public lands includes taking steps to reduce planet-warming carbon pollution – and arguing Willow’s carbon pollution would ultimately add to that.
“If true, the Biden administration is betraying its core commitment to stop runaway climate change,” Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said in a statement. “We hope the Biden administration will make the right decision to reject Willow, and if it makes the wrong decision, we are committed to challenging it.”
This story has been updated with additional details.