WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is expected to propose a scaled-down version of a sprawling oil drilling project in the North Slope of Alaska, according to two people familiar with the decision. The proposal would allow drilling to proceed on a limited basis as part of an $8 billion project known as Willow that climate activists have criticized for years.
The project, led by ConocoPhillips, has the potential to eventually unlock 600 million barrels of crude oil. Opponents say the decision undermines the Biden administration’s promises to cut fossil-fuel use in order to limit the damage from climate change.
The Bureau of Land Management in Alaska is preparing to say that it has selected a “preferred alternative” for development on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska that calls for curtailing the project from five drill sites to three, according to one person who viewed the draft report in recent days, and a second who was independently briefed on the report’s contents. Both requested anonymity to discuss the details of the plan.
The BLM’s action, which is expected in the coming days, is an environmental analysis that includes options that range from permitting five drill sites (the outcome sought by ConocoPhillips) to not allowing drilling at all. It does not represent a final decision by the government, but it would effectively be a recommendation to proceed with a scaled-back drilling operation.
Separately, BLM and White House officials are considering additional measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and environmental harm, such as delaying permitting decisions for one of the drill sites and planting trees, according to one of the two people familiar with the plan.
The Interior Department’s final decision is expected to be issued in the next month or so. That decision will ultimately be made in the White House by President Joe Biden’s top advisers, several administration officials said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The move to allow some drilling is widely considered a balancing act as the Biden administration seeks a middle ground between its climate change goals and pressure from the oil industry, as well as Alaska lawmakers. Willow is a particular priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate Republican who is frequently the most likely senator to break with her party and support Democratic appointees and some policy compromises.
The politics are complex. Biden has urged oil companies to increase production amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which continues to threaten energy supplies. At the same time, the administration is overseeing $370 billion in wind, solar, electric vehicle and other clean energy investments to pivot the country away from fossil fuels.
To get those projects built, administration officials have said reforms to federal permitting laws are needed. But that effort has become deeply politicized, and some observers said moderate Republican lawmakers like Murkowski might be able to help break a logjam.
“The Democrats’ Senate majority is still fragile, and they need to keep Lisa Murkowski open to voting with the Democrats on fundamental issues such as the debt ceiling and budget and appropriations,” said Wendy Schiller, a political-science professor at Brown University.
Climate activists called the environmental analysis a betrayal of Biden’s campaign pledge to end new federal oil and gas leases. Over its lifetime, the project is expected to emit 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, at a time when scientists say the world must slash its carbon pollution dramatically to avoid catastrophe.
“It is incomprehensible how an administration that is as climate-conscious as this one could even be contemplating letting this project move forward,” said Abigail Dillen, the president of Earthjustice, an environmental group.
Time is also running out this year for drilling to start. ConocoPhillips has said it is hoping for a fast decision from the Biden administration that would allow initial construction to begin this winter. If spring sets in and warmer temperatures begin to melt the frozen roads, it could make it more difficult for crews to pass, and construction would have to be shelved for another year.
ConocoPhillips declined to comment on the environmental analysis until it is formally released.
Willow’s supporters, including Alaska’s congressional delegation, labor unions, building trades and some residents of the North Slope, argue that the project would bring much-needed crude oil to a market that is still seeking alternatives to Russian oil while bolstering America’s energy security. They also point out that it would create about 2,500 jobs and generate as much as $17 billion in revenue for the federal government.
Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat who is the first Alaska Native in Congress, said she cared about the impact of climate change on Alaska, supported renewable energy and wanted to see fossil fuels phased out. But she also noted that 80% of Alaska’s revenues come from taxes on oil and gas operations, which is not income the state can afford to lose.
“Every Alaskan, without exception, can see with their own eyes the impacts of global climate change,” Peltola said in an interview, citing the growing trend of snowless winters. But, she added, “we still have to pay for education and public safety.”
Willow was initially approved by the Trump administration, and the Biden administration defended the approval in court. The project was then temporarily blocked by a judge, who said the prior administration’s environmental analysis was not sufficient and did not fully consider the potential harm to wildlife or the further impact on climate change.