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The Biden administration approves the controversial Willow drilling project in Alaska

This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope.
ConocoPhillips via AP
This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska's North Slope.

Updated March 13, 2023 at 1:16 PM ET

The Biden administration has approved a massive new oil drilling project in Alaska, over the objections of environmental advocates who have said greenlighting the plan would violate the president's climate goals.

It came a day after the administration said it was blocking or limiting drilling elsewhere in the state.

The government on Monday approved a scaled-down version of the so-called Willow project, which means the energy firm ConocoPhillips can move ahead with its plans to drill in the National Petroleum Reserve, located on the state's North Slope. The company says the project has the potential to produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day.

Proponents have suggested that the Willow project will lower oil prices and bolster national security, but Monday's announcement drew ire from environmental advocates who've called the proposal a "carbon bomb" and argue it could worsen climate change, harm biodiversity and slow a transition to cleaner fuels.

"We are too late in the climate crisis to approve massive oil and gas projects that directly undermine the new clean economy that the Biden Administration committed to advancing," Abigail Dillen, president of the group Earthjustice, said in a statement.

The controversial project has become a galvanizing issue for young climate activists, and millions have sent letters to the White House arguing that the decision goes against the first-term Democrat's climate pledges.

"We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals," Dillen added.

Within Alaska, the Willow project has enjoyed broad support from federal and state lawmakers, labor unions and Alaska Native leaders — many of whom have touted the potential for new jobs and increased revenue.

"We did it, Alaska!" said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who supported the project. "What a huge and needed victory for all Alaska. This project will produce lasting economic and security benefits for our state and the nation."

The project will include more than 200 wells spread across three drilling pads and miles of pipelines and roads.

Ryan Lance, ConocoPhillips chairman and chief executive officer, applauded the Biden administration's approval.

"Willow fits within the Biden Administration's priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security, all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities," Lance said.

ConocoPhillips said the project could generate as much as $17 billion in new revenue for federal, state and local governments. The company also said it would create 2,500 construction jobs and roughly 300 permanent jobs.

The government's announcement on Sunday blocks drilling in roughly 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea and restricts drilling in another 13 million acres of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve.

Environmental advocates said over the weekend that the tradeoff — allowing the massive Willow oil project to move forward while protecting up to 16 million acres of land in the Arctic — wasn't worth it.

"These unparalleled protections for Alaskan landscapes and waters are the right decision at the right time, and we thank the Biden Administration for taking this significant step," the Sierra Club's lands protection program director Athan Manuel said in a statement on Sunday.

"However, the benefits of these protections can be undone just as quickly by approval of oil and gas projects on public lands, and right now, no proposal poses a bigger threat to lands, wildlife, communities, and our climate than ConocoPhillips' Willow project," Manuel added.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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