The vast oil drilling project in Alaska is inconsistent with President Biden’s pledges to lead on climate action
The Joe Biden-led United States administration, on March 13, 2023, formally approved a vast oil drilling project in Alaska, also known as the Willow. The $8 billion (Rs 65,875.40 crore) project is hugely controversial for its likely environmental impact, even as many hail it for opportunities for thousands of jobs and establishing a new source of revenue for the region.
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The Willow Project is a decades-long oil drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government, according to the news channel CNN. The area where the project is planned holds up to 600 million barrels of oil, though that oil would take years to reach the market since the project has yet to be constructed.
Oil giant ConocoPhillips had fiercely lobbied for the project along with Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation for the past several months. The approval also comes one day after the Biden administration imposed limits on oil and gas drilling in 16 million acres of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
The drilling project would take place inside the petroleum reserve, which is located about 320 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The reserve, which has no roads, is the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.
None of the supporting facilities like road connections, pipeline tie-ins and the gravel mine site would be constructed on Native allotments, according to the decision.
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More than one million letters of protest have been written to the White House and a Change.org petition calling for Willow to be halted has drawn more than three million signatures, reported news broadcaster British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
The project is expected to produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day, the BBC report said. By the administration’s own estimations, the project would generate enough oil to release 278 million tonnes of planet-warming carbon dioxide a year — equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads.
An environmental impact statement by the US government’s Bureau of Land Management-Alaska raised “substantial concerns” about emissions, danger to freshwater sources and threats to migratory birds, caribou, whales and other animals that inhabit the region.
Former vice-president Al Gore had warned against the oil drilling project ahead of the approval from the Biden government, calling it “recklessly irresponsible”.
Gore spoke amid growing alarm among Democrats and campaigners that the Willow development will drastically undermine the US’s effort to confront the climate crisis.
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The approval of the Willow project marks a turning point in the administration’s approach to fossil fuel development.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 was signed last year, which contained billions of dollars worth of tax credits to speed the transition away from fossil fuels. It also stipulated that millions of acres of federal land be auctioned off for oil and gas drilling to provide more fossil fuels.
Therefore, Willow’s current approval can be inconsistent with President Biden’s pledges to lead on climate action.
Governments must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects if the planet is to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, the International Energy Agency said in 2021.
The White House on March 13, 2023, also made the entire US Arctic Ocean off limits to future oil and gas leasing — protecting around 16 million acres from future fossil fuel leasing, reported CNN.
The protections will extend to the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay special areas — places that are important habitats for grizzly bears, polar bears, caribou and migratory birds, the report further said.
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President Biden is also expected to announce sweeping restrictions on offshore oil leasing in the Arctic Ocean and across Alaska’s North Slope in an apparent effort to temper criticism over the Willow decision, reported website The New York Times.
New rules are also expected to be issued to block oil and gas leases on more than 13 million of the 23 million acres that form the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
ConocoPhillips had initially sought five drilling sites for the project and said it needed at least three to make the project financially viable, The New York Times report further said. The final decision approved three drilling pads. The Oil Giant would also return about 68,000 acres of existing leases to the government.
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