Massive drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope given go ahead

Critics say the lease is at odds with President Biden’s pledge to combat the climate crisis.


An oil pipeline stretches across the landscape outside Prudhoe Bay in North Slope Borough, Alaska in 2019.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This story was originally published by the Guardian as part of their two-year series, This Land is Your Land, examining the threats facing America’s public lands, with support from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and is republished by permission.

Joe Biden’s administration is facing an onslaught of criticism from environmentalists after opting to defend the approval of a massive oil and gas drilling project in the frigid northern reaches of Alaska.

In a briefing filed in federal court on Wednesday, the Department of Justice said the Trump-era decision to allow the project in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska’s North Slope was “reasonable and consistent” with the law and should be allowed to go ahead.

This stance means the Biden administration is contesting a lawsuit brought by environmental groups aimed at halting the drilling due to concerns over the impact upon wildlife and planet-heating emissions. The president has paused all new drilling leases on public land but is allowing this Alaska lease, approved under Trump, to go ahead.

The project, known as Willow, is being overseen by the oil company ConocoPhillips and is designed to extract more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years. Environmentalists say allowing the project is at odds with Biden’s vow to combat the climate crisis and drastically reduce U.S. emissions.

“It’s incredibly disappointing to see the Biden administration defending this environmentally disastrous project,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that have sued to stop the drilling. “President Biden promised climate action and our climate can’t afford more huge new oil-drilling projects.”

“It’s incredibly disappointing to see the Biden administration defending this environmentally disastrous project.”

The Arctic is heating up at three times the rate of the rest of the planet and ConocoPhillips will have to resort to Kafkaesque interventions to be able to drill for oil in an environment being destroyed by the burning of that fuel. The company plans to install “chillers” into the Alaska permafrost, which is rapidly melting due to global heating, to ensure it is stable enough to host drilling equipment.

Monsell said the attempts to refreeze the thawing permafrost in order to extract more fossil fuel “highlights the ridiculousness of drilling in the Arctic.” Kirsten Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said Willow “is the poster child for the type of massive fossil fuel development that must be avoided today if we’re to avoid the worst climate impacts down the road.”

The Willow project will involve drilling up to 250 wells and associated infrastructure, such as a processing facility, hundreds of miles of new pipelines and roads and an airstrip, in the northeastern corner of the petroleum reserve, which is a federally owned tract of land roughly the size of Indiana.

Trump’s administration approved the drilling late in the former president’s term and activists hoped Biden would reverse this decision to meet his climate goals. A recent landmark report by the International Energy Agency found that there can be no new fossil fuel projects anywhere if the world is to avoid dangerous global heating.

Caribou at Teshekpuk Lake in North Slope Borough, Alaska in 2019. The lake is the largest in Arctic Alaska. It is a significant location for geese to molt and for caribou to migrate and calf.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Native Alaskan groups have also opposed the project over fears it will adversely impact the abundant local wildlife, such as polar bears, fish and migrating caribou.

“This project is in the important fall migration for Nuiqsut,” said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a resident of Nuiqsut, a community in the north slope. “It should not happen. The village spoke in opposition and the greed for profit should not be allowed over our village.”

Oliver Milman is an environment reporter for Guardian U.S. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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