Biden backs $11b Alaska oil project despite climate peril

WASHINGTON – US President Joe Biden has authorised a giant ConocoPhillips oil project in north-west Alaska that environmentalists argue has no place in a warming world, even as he sought to bar future drilling across US Arctic waters and lands.

The approach represents Mr Biden’s bid for a middle ground, as he seeks to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels while bound by the legal decisions of past administrations.

ConocoPhillips has held some leases underpinning its 600 million-barrel Willow oil development since 1999, and the project was already approved once under former president Donald Trump.

With the Interior Department’s new authorisation, the company now will be permitted to drill from three locations across its Willow site in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

ConocoPhillips, which originally sought to drill from five well pads at Willow, said anything short of three would not be viable.

But Mr Biden’s conservation moves mean oil companies also will have far fewer opportunities to find and develop prospects north of the Arctic Circle.

The authorisation represents one of the most significant climate decisions yet for Mr Biden, who campaigned on a pledge to block new drilling on public lands and presided over sweeping government investments in clean energy.

Yet, he has also implored oil companies to boost output to tame prices and address market disruptions spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Climate issues

The Willow project created additional political challenges, as Mr Biden faced intense pressure from unions and some indigenous groups in Alaska who argued the development would provide an economic lifeline to the region.

Environmentalists excoriated the approval of what would become one of the largest oil-and-gas-extraction projects on public lands.

“We are too late in the climate crisis to approve massive oil and gas projects,” said Ms Abigail Dillen, head of the advocacy group Earthjustice. “We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals.”

The US$8 billion (S$11 billion) project is at the forefront of pending US oil projects today, and the 180,000 daily barrels of crude it is projected to eventually yield represents roughly 1.6 per cent of current US production. Over 30 years, it could yield some 280 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.