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The Biden administration on Monday approved one of the nation’s largest-ever oil drilling projects, an $8 billion development in Alaska’s Arctic north that is fiercely opposed by environmentalists.
The decision marked a victory for a bipartisan group of Alaska lawmakers who had championed the project, called the Willow Plan, and a striking reversal for a president who promised “no more drilling on federal lands, period” on the campaign trail.
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, and Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, joined in celebration on Monday.
“Today, the people of Alaska were heard,” Peltola said in a statement. “Now, it’s on us here in Alaska to make sure that we make the best of this opportunity.”
The project could employ 2,500 workers during construction and create 300 long-term jobs, according to ConocoPhillips, the Houston-based oil giant leading the development.
But the undertaking also would pump an estimated 8 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere a year, equivalent to emissions from roughly 1.7 million cars.
Biden, who has angered clean-energy activists by extending oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, faces tough choices as Russia’s war in Ukraine plugs global energy supply chains and the 2024 general election looms.
In 2020, he said he was “totally opposed” to oil drilling in the Arctic, describing it as a “disaster.”
His administration coupled its approval of three drilling sites on a frigid 499-acre site in Alaska’s North Slope with a notice declaring that nearly 3 million acres in the state’s National Petroleum Reserve will be made off-limits for oil and gas drilling.
Up to 16 million acres in Alaska could ultimately be covered by newly proposed protections, according to the Interior Department.
Ryan Lance, ConocoPhillips’s chief executive, said in a statement that the Willow project fits within the White House’s “priorities on environmental and social justice.”
But Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based legal group, said Biden’s decision on the Willow Plan could have deeply damaging environmental effects.
“We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate,” Abigail Dillen, the group’s president, said in a statement, “but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals.”