President Joe Biden on Monday is expected to announce sweeping new protections for federal lands and waters in Alaska, according to an administration official, as the administration is poised to soon approve a major oil drilling project in the state.
Biden will declare the entire US Arctic Ocean off limits to future oil and gas leasing and will announce new rules to protect over 13 million acres in the federal National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska from drilling. In all, the administration will move to protect up to 16 million acres from future fossil fuel leasing.
The announcement comes as the administration is preparing to green-light the ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, a massive oil drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve. By the administration’s own estimates, Willow would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons (10 million US tons) of planet-warming carbon pollution a year – equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads.
The protections will extend to the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay special areas – places that are important habitat to grizzly bears, polar bears, caribou and migratory birds. The official said the administration views the new actions as a “firewall” against both future fossil fuel leasing and expansion of existing projects on the North Slope.
CNN reported on Friday that the administration is soon set to approve Willow. The expected approval is a victory for Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation and a coalition of Alaska Native tribes and groups who hailed the drilling venture as a much-needed new source of revenue and jobs for the remote region. It is a major blow to climate groups and Alaska Natives who oppose Willow, arguing the project will hurt the president’s ambitious climate goals and pose health and environmental risks.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre pushed back Friday, saying no final decision on the project had been made and that the US Department of the Interior would make an “independent decision on the Willow Project.”
The administration official said deliberations on Willow are focused on the legal challenges the administration faces if it tries to stop or substantially limit the venture, given ConocoPhillips’ existing, decades-long leases. These existing leases are limiting the administration’s options with the project, the administration official said.
The additional protection measures may not be enough to assuage the concerns of climate and environmental groups, who have been pushing hard against the project.
“These conservation decisions by the Biden administration are positive steps, but not nearly sufficient to blunt the impact of any version of the Willow oil and gas project,” Karlin Itchoak, Alaska senior regional director for The Wilderness Society, said in a statement.