Updated Mar 13, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Biden administration approves Willow oil project in Alaska

A bear looks after her three cubs in North Slope Borough, Alaska on May 25, 2019. Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Biden administration announced Monday it will approve ConocoPhillips' Willow oil project located on a portion of Alaska's North Slope that is one of the last unspoiled wilderness areas in America.

Why it matters: The project, which is estimated to produce about 576 million barrels of oil over 30 years, is seen as a key test of Biden's climate commitments, as well as his energy priorities.

The big picture: The administration is not approving the entire project that ConocoPhillips originally asked for, which was for five well pads.

  • Instead, the go-ahead is being given for three pads, which will slightly reduce the project's emissions footprint and cut its impact on the sensitive ecosystems in the region.
  • The approval also relinquishes ConocoPhillips' land rights to about 68,000 acres in that area.
  • The Department of Interior's environmental analysis found the big new project would create annual emissions that equate to less than 1 percent of total U.S. annual emissions in 2019, the analysis found.
  • The total annual emissions from the project would be equivalent to the emissions from 1.2 coal-fired power plants per year, the environmental analysis found.

Between the lines: The total indirect emissions from the project, which refers to the emissions generated by burning the oil for energy, would amount to about 239 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent, the Interior Department's record of decision issued Monday states.

Yes, but: Its approval comes as numerous studies show that in order to meet global climate goals, emissions from fossil fuels must rapidly decline.

  • The environmental analysis makes clear that the project would contribute to climate change.

Threat level: Interior's analysis details the sweeping changes global warming is having on the area where Willow would be built, which is one of the fastest-warming locations on Earth.

  • It even includes the possibility that permafrost thaw may pose challenges for project infrastructure, while also accelerating the release of greenhouse gases.

Go deeper: Biden's Arctic oil drama

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include new information on the indirect emissions from the project.

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