Biden to put Arctic waters off limits to new oil leases as Willow decision looms
President Joe Biden will declare the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits to new oil and gas leasing, even as a decision looms on whether it will approve a controversial oil project in Alaska, according to a senior administration official.
The administration will also announce Monday new rules meant to make 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska off limits for new leases, the official said. Those protections would extend to the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay Special Areas, the official said.
But these rules would not affect the controversial Willow project, which the administration is expected to greenlight this week, because ConocoPhillips already has leases. That drilling project would produce up to 180,000 barrels a day of oil in the Alaska wilderness — an anticipated decision that has drawn the ire of environmentalists.
The White House has been mulling the Willow decision for weeks. The deliberations have focused on the legal constraints posed by the fact that Conoco has held some leases for decades and “has certain valid, existing rights granted by prior Administrations, limiting the Biden Administration’s options,” the official continued.
Stopping new oil leases, plus other measures meant to conserve the Arctic from new drilling, is meant as a “fire wall” to protect 16 million acres of land and water in the state, said the official.
The American Petroleum Institute, the trade association representing the largest oil and gas companies, came out against the administration’s plans as sending “mixed signals” after Biden and his cabinet officials have asked the industry to pump more oil to help keep fuel prices down.
“In the current energy crisis, the Biden administration should be focused on strengthening U.S. energy security and standing with the working families of Alaska by supporting the responsible development of federal lands and waters – not acting to restrict it,” Frank Macchiarola, API’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said in a statement. “We urge the administration to end the mixed signals on energy policy and focus instead on real solutions for the American people.”
But environmental groups have argued that oil companies have lost interest in drilling in Alaska in recent years and not much would be lost in ceasing new leases. The Center for Western Priorities, a progressive group advocating land conservation, said analysis of government data showed oil companies have leased less than 11 percent of the 24 million acres of land in the NPR-A that Interior has put up for lease since 2014. Companies bought leases worth only 80,000 acres of the 10 million the Trump administration offered in the NPR-A in 2017, the group noted.
“If the reporting on Willow is accurate, President Biden is about to dig himself a massive hole when it comes to public lands and the energy transition,” CWP Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said in a statement. “If the Biden administration is serious about their commitments to address the climate and nature crises, it’s imperative that the president double down on durable, meaningful action.”
The Sierra Club environmental group also gave tempered support to any new rules.
“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,” Sierra Club Lands Protection Program Director Athan Manuel said in a prepared statement. “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.”
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