WASHINGTON — In one of its most consequential climate decisions, the Biden administration is planning to greenlight an enormous $8 billion oil drilling project in the North Slope of Alaska, according to two people familiar with the decision.
Alaska lawmakers and oil executives have put intense pressure on the White House to approve the project, citing President Biden’s own calls for the industry to increase production amid volatile gas prices.
But the proposal to drill for oil has also galvanized young voters and climate activists, many of whom helped elect Mr. Biden and who would view the decision as a betrayal of the president’s promise that he would pivot the nation away from fossil fuels.
The approval, by the Interior Department, of the largest proposed oil project in the country would mark a turning point in the administration’s approach to fossil fuel development. The courts and Congress have forced Mr. Biden to back away from his campaign pledge of “no more drilling on federal lands, period” and sign off on some limited oil and gas leases. The Willow project would be one of the few oil developments that Mr. Biden has approved freely, without a court or a congressional mandate.
While the decision is not yet final and still could be amended by Mr. Biden, it illustrates the tensions he faces as the urgency of climate change collides with the realities of the war in Ukraine and the instability it has created in global energy markets.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, who has championed the project, said Friday night that she had not been notified of the decision. “We are not celebrating yet, not with this White House,” she said.
Environmental groups went into overdrive over the weekend as they tried to sway the administration to change course.
“Let us be clear: Willow has not yet been approved, and it is not an acceptable project,” said Karlin Itchoak, the Alaska senior regional director at The Wilderness Society, an environmental group. He called approval a “terrible, science-denying move.”
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, stressed that a final decision had not been made.
ConocoPhillips intends to build the Willow project inside the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre area that is 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The reserve, which has no roads, is the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
The administration reduced the number of drilling sites the company had requested, to three from five, said one of the people with knowledge of the discussions.
Still, Willow would be the largest new oil development in the United States, expected to pump out 600 million barrels of crude over 30 years. Burning all that oil could release nearly 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. On an annual basis, that would translate into 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year. The United States, the second biggest polluter on the planet after China, emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Environmental activists, who have labeled the project a “carbon bomb” have argued that the project would deepen America’s dependence on oil and gas at a time when the International Energy Agency said nations must stop permitting such projects to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States and temperatures there are expected to continue to increase by an average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the 30-year life of the Willow project, thawing the frozen Arctic tundra around the drilling rigs.
ConocoPhillips plans to install devices called thermosyphons in the thawing permafrost to keep it solid enough to support the heavy equipment needed to drill for oil — the burning of which will release carbon dioxide emissions that scientists say will worsen the ice melt.
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The administration’s intention to approve the Willow project was first reported by Bloomberg. The decision has been one of the most difficult energy issues faced by the Biden administration, which has done more than any previous White House to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and boost wind, solar and other clean energy.
Political analysts said they see the move as part of Mr. Biden’s shift to the center.
“Joe Biden is a realist about what it will take to win re-election in 2024 for him, or any other Democrat,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. “Americans are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, from gasoline to heavy manufacturing, and any shortage or spike in prices will make voters nervous, especially in high driving swing states like Georgia, Arizona, and Michigan. The Democrats narrowly escaped the full brunt of gas prices and inflation in 2022, but no politically attuned incumbent president would want to take that chance again.”
Kevin Book, managing director of Clearview Energy Partners, a research firm, said approving Willow would be a pragmatic decision. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many countries stopped or reduced Russian gas and oil purchases to curtail Moscow’s revenues. Those cutbacks have reshaped energy markets, created shortages in Europe and propelled the United States to fill the gap by producing more oil and gas.
“The war is not over,” Mr. Book said. “There is still a big potential risk to supply, and it’s not going to end even if the war does.”
He also argued that the emissions linked to burning oil drilled from the Willow project would not have been eliminated if Mr. Biden had rejected the project, but simply generated elsewhere.
Administration officials are moving ahead with the Willow project despite “substantial concerns” about emissions, danger to freshwater sources and threats to migratory birds, caribou, whales and other animals that inhabit the region. The government stipulated conditions that include protections for wildlife and reducing the length of gravel and ice roads, pipelines and the length of airstrips to support the drilling.
Alaska’s congressional delegation, which is unanimous in its support for Willow, met with Mr. Biden last week. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said he had handed the president a unanimous bipartisan resolution in support of the project passed recently by the Alaska Legislature.
Other supporters, including labor unions, building trades and some residents of the North Slope, have argued that the project would create about 2,500 jobs and generate as much as $17 billion in revenue for the federal government.
At a recent meeting convened by Ms. Murkowski, Taqulik Hepa, director of the Department of Wildlife Management for the North Slope Borough, said that municipal services in her community depended on taxes from oil and gas infrastructure.
Ms. Hepa said the borough and its residents were “keenly aware of the need to balance responsible oil development and the subsistence lifestyle that has sustained us.”
Environmental opponents of the project say it is incomprehensible that a president who wants to confront climate change could approve the Willow project.
Activists this month mounted a protest in the rain outside the White House and rallied on Tik Tok and other social media against the project with the hashtag #StopWillow, which was used hundreds of millions of times. A petition to “Say no to the Willow project” on Change.org has more than three million signatures and continues to grow.
Leaders of major environmental organizations including the League of Conservation Voters, Alaska Wilderness League, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice and others gathered two weeks ago for what two participants described as an emotionally charged meeting with Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary. Ms. Haaland, who opposed Willow when she served in Congress, choked up as Alaska Natives begged her to block the project and she explained her agency had to make difficult choices, the attendees said. Activists left with the impression that the decision to approve Willow had been made.
Among the staunchest opponents of the project are people who live closest to it. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak is the mayor of Nuiqsut, an Alaska Native community that is about 35 miles from the Willow site. If the project is built, she said her community of about 500 would be surrounded by oil and gas facilities, threatening their way of life and reliance on subsistence hunting and fishing.
“We have enough oil and gas development around us and enough areas that are already leased in this area that they could do work for a long time,” Ms. Ahtuangaruak said. “There’s no reason they have to go into this area. It’s about wanting to.”
In a March 3 letter to Ms. Haaland, Ms. Ahtuangaruak said recent environmental reviews of the project had not adequately considered the impact on the local community.
The federal agency, she wrote, “does not look at the harm this project would cause from the perspective of how to let us be us — how to ensure that we can maintain our culture, traditions and our ability to keep going out on the lands and waters.”
Willow was initially approved by the Trump administration and the Biden administration later defended the approval in court. The project was then temporarily blocked by a judge who said that 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. That forced the Biden administration to perform a new analysis, which it released in July.
Coral Davenport Katie Rogers and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.