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Controversial Willow oil project in Alaska: Here’s what to know

The US government approved a major oil project in Alaska that supporters say is an economic lifeline for indigenous communities but environmentalists say is a disaster in the fight against global climate change.

The decision on ConocoPhillips Alaska’s $8 billion Willow Project, in a federal oil reserve about the size of Indiana, was announced Monday.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is the Willow Project?

The 30-year scheme aims to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day — about 1.5 percent of total US oil production. Willow is currently the largest proposed oil project on public land in the US.

So far this year, some 498,000 barrels of oil per day have flowed through the trans-Alaska pipeline, well below the peak of 2.1 million barrels in the late 1980s. ConocoPhillips Alaska proposed five drilling sites as part of the project. The US Bureau of Land Management approved three.

The petroleum reserve on Alaska’s North Slope was set aside a century ago for future oil production.

Is there support for Willow?

There is widespread political support in Alaska, including from the bipartisan congressional delegation, Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy, and state legislators.

Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan said the development could be “one of the largest and most important development projects in our state’s history.”

There is also a “majority consensus” for support in the oil-rich North Slope region, said Nagruk Harcharek, chair of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat group, whose members include leaders from much of that region. Proponents have called the project balanced, saying communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow to invest in infrastructure and provide public services.

Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of the city of Nuiqsut, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the development, has been a prominent opponent concerned about the effects on caribou and the livelihoods of its residents. But the opposition there is not universal. The local Alaska Native village company has expressed its support.

What do environmentalists say?

Erik Grafe of the Earth Justice group said the move “severely undermines efforts to combat climate change” as global temperatures rise and time is running out to phase out fossil fuel burning.

“It is predicted that 260 million tons of carbon dioxide will be released, so that is the same as putting 56 million cars on the road for a year or 69 coal-fired power plants for a year. These are the types of emissions we cannot afford if we want to prevent the worst of climate change,” Grafe told Al Jazeera.

“The Willow project is intended to last for 30 years, so it’s capturing these carbon emissions, which we can’t afford now or well into the future. There is simply no room in the carbon budget for these kinds of mega projects.”

Environmentalists say the project’s approval is a betrayal of President Joe Biden, who pledged during the 2020 campaign to end new oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

“Today’s decision to approve the Willow project in Alaska will lock in decades of dirty and hazardous oil and gas production and overwhelm the tremendous environmental and economic opportunity that the transition to a clean economy will bring,” said Margie. Alt, director of the Climate Action Campaign. .

What is the politics of the decision?

Biden’s decision pits Alaska lawmakers against environmental groups and many Democrats in Congress who say the project is out of step with his goals of halving global warming by 2030 and moving to clean energy.

Biden has made combating climate change a top priority and supported a landmark bill to accelerate the expansion of clean energy such as wind and solar and move the US away from oil, coal and gas. He has faced attacks from Republican lawmakers who blame him for spikes in gasoline prices that occurred after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Willow project “is about producing oil for decades when the US must be on a steep reduction path,” said Michael Lazarus, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “I see the political pressure the government is under, but the science doesn’t change.”

What is the government saying?

The US Department of the Interior praised the government’s actions on climate change.

“In his first year, President Biden protected more land and water than any president since John F Kennedy. The president and the Biden-Harris administration continue to pursue the most aggressive climate agenda in U.S. history, including the creation of clean energy production and jobs,” it said in a statement. rack.

“And its economic agenda has put the United States back on track to meet its 2030 and 2050 climate goals while reducing America’s dependence on oil.”

Home Secretary Deb Haaland, in a video statement posted on Twitter, referred to the project as a “difficult and complex issue” involving leases from previous administrations.

“As a result, we had limited decision room, but we focused on how to reduce the project’s footprint and minimize the impact on people and wildlife,” said Haaland, who had opposed Willow as a congressman in New York. Mexico before becoming interior minister.

What other actions is the Biden administration taking?

On Sunday, the government announced it would indefinitely ban future oil and gas leases of nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of the Arctic Ocean and impose new protections in the petroleum reserve. The retreat of the offshore area ensures that an important habitat for whales, seals, polar bears and other wildlife is “forever protected from extractive development,” the White House said in a statement.

The Biden administration also said it plans to consider additional protections for the more than 13 million acres (5.3 million hectares) within the petroleum reserve that have been designated as special areas for their wildlife, livelihood, scenic or other values. Details were not immediately clear.