WASHINGTON -- The Biden administration is defending a Trump-era oil and gas project in the North Slope of Alaska designed to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years, despite President Joe Biden's pledge to pivot the country away from fossil fuels.
The multibillion-dollar plan from ConocoPhillips to drill in part of the National Petroleum Reserve was approved by the Trump administration late last year. Environmental groups sued, arguing that the federal government failed to take into account the impact that drilling would have on fragile wildlife and burning that oil would have on climate change.
The project, known as Willow, set up a choice for the Biden administration: decline to defend oil drilling and hinder a lucrative project that conflicts with its climate policy or support a federal decision backed by the state of Alaska, some tribal nations, unions and key officials, including Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican senator seen as a potential ally of the administration in an evenly split Senate.
On Wednesday, the administration filed a brief in U.S. District Court for Alaska, defending the Trump administration decision to greenlight the Willow project.
In a statement, the Interior Department said the Trump administration decision complied with the environmental rules in place at the time and that the plaintiffs did not challenge the approval "within the time limitations associated with environmental review projects" for the National Petroleum Reserve.
The administration declined to explain how its position on the Willow project aligns with its climate change policies.
The Willow project is expected to produce about 590 million barrels of oil over the course of three decades. ConocoPhillips plans to install "chillers" into the permafrost -- which is fast melting because of climate change -- to keep it solid enough to support the equipment to drill for oil, the burning of which will continue to worsen ice melt.
Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Arctic ecosystems are in disarray, sea ice is disappearing, sea levels are rising and the ground is thawing.
A federal court halted construction in February while the case is pending. The court could ultimately still decide against the project, its critics said. But oil and gas industry officials and members of Alaska's congressional delegation, some of whom personally appealed to the president this week, said they believed the administration's support would help it proceed.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, called the project a "big, big deal for Alaska -- a big deal in my view for America" when speaking with reporters earlier this week. He said he raised the Willow project directly with Biden when he and other members of the Alaska delegation went to the White House on Monday for the signing of a tourism bill allowing cruise ships to visit Alaska.
"He said he'd look into it and get back to us," Sullivan told reporters after that White House meeting.
The decision comes just days after the International Energy Agency, the world's top energy body, warned that governments must stop investing in new fossil fuel projects if they want to keep the increase in average global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. That's the threshold beyond which scientists say the Earth will experience irreversible damage.
It also stands in stark contrast to Biden's pledge to cut U.S. emissions about in half by 2030; replace fossil fuels with solar, wind and other renewable energy; and enhance protections for public lands and waters.
Kristen Miller, acting director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said the burning of oil produced by the Willow Project over its lifetime will emit about the equivalent of what is produced by 66 coal-fired power plants. But, she argued, the infrastructure also will lead to new oil and gas projects in the region.
"Not only does the project in itself have significant and long-lasting climate problems, it's setting the stage for more emissions in the future," Miller said.
Biden has taken significant steps to limit oil and gas development in the United States. One of his first acts as president was to temporarily freeze new oil and gas leases on public lands and offshore waters. He also placed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is still in place.
The Willow Project is in the northeastern portion of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area set aside by the federal government for oil and gas development. The initial discovery of oil in the Willow area was made by ConocoPhillips Alaska in 2017, and the company has said the project is expected to create more than 1,000 jobs during peak construction, and more than 400 permanent jobs.