Q&A on Biden’s approval of Arctic drilling of Willow

A 2019 file photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. (ConocoPhillips via AP)

The Biden administration announced Monday morning that it is approving a permit for Willow.

That’s the $8 billion ConocoPhillips project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the largest oil development in Alaska since the 1990s. And Sunday night, ahead of the Willow announcement, the administration said it would impose new restrictions on drilling in the NPR-A.

Alaska Public Media reporter Wesley Early spoke to Washington Correspondent Liz Ruskin to learn more.

Wesley Early: Liz, this is a victory for Conoco and everyone else who lobbied to get the Willow permit approved, right?

Liz Ruskin: Yes. The administration approved three drilling pads for Willow, which amounts to about 219 wells. That’s the same number as the Bureau of Land Management recommended in January. Conoco had wanted five drilling sites and 250 wells. So it’s slightly scaled back but proponents of Willow are calling this a big win. Certainly the congressional delegation is. So are groups on the North Slope that have been lobbying for Willow.

WE: What are these drilling limitations the Biden administration announced Sunday night, and what’s the deal with a Sunday night announcement?

LR: Yeah, it was weird. What kicked it off, I think is that Friday, Bloomberg reported – based on unnamed sources – that the administration was going to approve Willow. Then a whole bunch of other media outlets reported this, also based on unnamed sources. Then the reaction started pouring in from conservation groups and climate activists and other people who wanted to stop Willow. I think the Interior Department announced these protections when they did to try to blunt the criticism.

ConocoPhillips wanted approval for five drilling pads. The Biden administration approved a plan for three drill pads, with more than 200 wells. (Associated Press)

WE: Did it work? The criticism from environmental groups seems pretty loud today.

LR: Right. I’d say it didn’t really work, but it does add a smaller headline under the main one today. The main headline is “Biden allows Arctic oil development, enraging climate advocates.” The smaller one says “but he’s also imposing some limits on Arctic drilling.”

WE: What are the limitations and will they hinder future developments, beyond Willow?

LR: We don’t really know how much impact these measures will have and whether they’ll apply at all to land that’s already under lease, but we’ve got two categories of government action here. One is that the Interior Department says that they are working on new rules that would limit development on – or “protect,” depending on how you view this – 13 million acres of the reserve. That’s more than half of the reserve. The press release says it would seek the highest level of protection for at least some of the acreage, and that the limits would be applied to land already deemed sensitive or special. So we don’t really know the details and we likely won’t until the rules are put out for public comment, which the Interior Department says will be in a few months.

The administration also announced that President Biden will remove 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from possible consideration for oil lease sales. That strip of the Beaufort was the only remaining part of the Arctic Ocean under U.S. control that might have been considered for offshore drilling. That’s because in 2016 President Obama put almost all of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off-limits.

WE: The Willow project has faced criticism from some Indigenous and conservation groups for years, but it recently started to trend nationally through some coordinated social media advocacy, especially through the app TikTok. Can you talk about how that advocacy influenced the debate in the last week?

LR: Well, I’m not sure how much influence it had, since ultimately the decision didn’t go their way, but It certainly brought the debate to a lot more people and very quickly. It kind of put Willow on the map, nationally speaking. Especially for younger people who care a lot about stopping climate change. I think that awareness and that activism doesn’t disappear. I think we’ll see a replay when future Arctic developments are debated.

WE: Lastly, do you expect environmental groups will challenge this in court?

LR: Absolutely. And soon.

This conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Related stories from around the North: 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Yukon gov’t boasts of ‘strongest economy in Canada,’ tables $48M surplus budget, CBC News

Norway: Norway’s oil minister: “We need new discoveries”, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Crisis-ridden Russian gas industry looks to Arctic for more LNG, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaska politicians applaud, environmental groups denounce, Arctic project go-ahead, Eye on the Arctic

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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