Willow Project: Federal judge rules Alaska oil drilling can proceed

  • london
  • April 5, 2023
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ast month, a significant oil and gas drilling project in Alaska that was opposed vehemently by environmentalists was approved by US President Joe Biden.

Now a federal judge has given the green light for the project, after he declined to block progress from “going ahead” while lawsuits against it proceed.

The Biden administration approved the massive drilling project, despite one million letters written to the White House and a Change.org petition gaining five million signatures protesting it amid climate change fears.

And now a judge has thrown out a move by environmentalists to put the brake on the plans.

The temporary lawsuit requested that the judge grant a preliminary injunction on the project as the court considered the cases, which would have halted construction.

But federal judge Sharon Gleason of the US District Court of Alaska this week ruled in favour of the federal government and oil company ConocoPhillips in allowing the construction of the project to continue as the court process plays out.

What is the Willow Project?

The project would involve drilling down to use the petroleum stored on the Alaskan North Slope. It is said doing so could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, which is about 1.5 per cent of total US oil production. It would be the biggest US oil field in decades.

Alaska Republican US Senator Dan Sullivan said it would potentially be “one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in our state’s history”.

How big would the project be?

Five drilling sites have been proposed by the project builder, ConocoPhillips Alaska. Three sites were previously put forward by the US Bureau of Land Management. However, the US Interior Department, which oversees the bureau, has expressed “substantial concerns” over both options.

Why is it contentious?

Evidence has shown that the Willow Project would produce the equivalent of more than 278 million tonnes (306 million short tonnes) of greenhouse gases over its 30-year life. This is roughly equal to the combined emissions from two million passenger cars over the same period.

On average, about 499,700 barrels of oil a day flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline, well below the late-1980s peak of 2.1 million barrels.

Is there support for the Willow Project?

Yes. There is widespread political support in Alaska, including from those in power – Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy and state lawmakers. There also is “majority consensus” in support in the North Slope region, said Nagruk Harcharek. He is president of the group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, whose members include leaders from across much of that region.

Supporters have called the project balanced and said communities would benefit from taxes generated by it. They say these would be used to invest in infrastructure and provide public services in the area.

So who is against it?

The project looks to be against President Biden’s beliefs.

Mr Biden has made fighting climate change a top priority. He has backed a landmark law to accelerate expansion of clean energy such as wind and solar power, and move the US away from the use of oil, coal and gas.

Environmental campaigners also have expressed grave concerns. Earthjustice has urged opponents to call the White House to demand the project’s rejection.

What are the politics of the decision?

Mr Biden’s dilemma centres on a row starting between Alaskan lawmakers and environmental groups. Democrats in Congress are also closely watching what he will decide, as they say the project is out of step with his goals to slash planet-warming carbon emissions in half by 2030 and move to clean energy.

Environmentalists say approving the project would represent a betrayal by Mr Biden. He promised during his 2020 election campaign to end new oil and gas drilling on federal lands.