Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is defending the Biden administration’s decision to allow ConocoPhillips to begin its $8 billion project to drill for oil in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPR-A), an effort that could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day at its peak.
“We’re not going to turn the faucet off and say we’re not drilling anymore,” Haaland told the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Boise, Idaho on April 23.
Biden promised during his presidential campaign to end new drilling for oil on federal property.
“We’re not going to say we’re not going to use gas and oil,” Haaland told some 800 environmental journalists at the conference at Boise State University. “That’s not reality.”
Haaland did not personally sign the order approving the project, it was signed by Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. She did tell those assembled for the luncheon event that in addition to the Williow decision the Biden administration had just approved several clean energy projects including $35 million for 39 National Fish Passage projects in 22 states, including Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington, to address climate resilience and strengthening local economies as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. These projects are aimed at easing the challenges faced by salmon trying to migrate back to natal streams.
“We’re in a climate crisis everyone, and so we are taking that part very seriously,” Haaland said in response to questions from the journalists. She said the decision to approve the Willow project was “a very long, complicated and difficult decision to make.”
“You know, legal, existing rights are a thing in this country. We have to honor those in some respects,” she said. “What we did really try to do is make it smaller to protect the stakeholders, and do whatever we could to help the situation to be more amenable to the wildlife and the ecosystems in Alaska.”
ConocoPhillips is the only oil company drilling in the NPR-A, and will face challenges dealing with drilling in a place where temperatures are rising about four times faster than on the rest of the planet, causing ice roads built for winter construction to thin and melt more quickly.
Even at this point, ConocoPhillips is using tall metal pipes filled with refrigerants partly buried in the ground to keep these grounds frozen.
Alaskans, including those living in Nuiqsut on the North Slope, are divided in their feelings on the project.
“We don’t have the normal snow covering that we should have at this point in the year,” Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak said in a recent interview with the New York Times.
Petroleum economist Roger Marks in Anchorage told the New York Times that there is also the threat that demand for oil could peak and decline. “The stone age did not come to an end for a lack of stone,” Marks said. “That’s the long-term trick these companies face with electric cars and wind and hydro, and everything else. Eventually oil is going to go away, even if there’s still some to produce.”
Karlin Itchoak, senior regional director for the Alaska region for The Wilderness Society, said that the Willow project poses a serious threat to air quality and subsistence resources for Indigenous communities in the area as well as the world’s climate, and that ConocoPhillips should not be allowed to begin work on a destructive project that was poorly evaluated by the Bureau of Land Management.
“Willow would result in the release of more than 280 million metric tons of greenhouse gases over its 30-year lifespan,” she said, in a statement released in early April. “The Biden administration needs to thoroughly review its practices and change the way it approaches drilling for oil on public lands if it has any hope of meeting its own commitments and leading on the kind of fundamental shift in energy policy that a livable future demands.”