UPDATE: The Biden administration on Monday approved limited development of the Willow project. This story will no longer be updated. Find the latest updates here.
The Biden administration is preparing to approve the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope, according to a report Friday by Bloomberg News and a report Monday by Associated Press, both based on anonymous sources.
The reports cited two people “familiar” with the matter, saying the Interior Department next week will authorize the development of three drill sites in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — a plan supported by oil company ConocoPhillips and Alaska leaders advocating for the project.
“After weeks of deliberations, senior advisers have signed off on the move, which represents one of the most momentous climate decisions yet for President Joe Biden,” said the Bloomberg report.
CNN on Friday also reported the White House was set to approve the project, “according to a congressional source familiar with the details.”
Neither the White House nor the Interior Department confirmed that approval was imminent.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday that the Interior Department will make an “independent decision” on Willow.
“No final decisions have been made — anyone who says there has been a final decision is wrong,” Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
ConocoPhillips, in a Friday statement, said the company has not yet received a record of decision on the project.
“We are unable to comment until we see the published (record of decision),” a ConocoPhillips spokesperson said in an email.
Nevertheless, groups opposed to Willow immediately began weighing in, saying if the report is true, it would be a betrayal of Biden’s pledges to lead on climate change.
“It would be a terrible, science-denying move to allow this project to move forward, given how harmful it would be to local communities and the global climate,” said Karlin Itchoak with The Wilderness Society in Alaska.
Congressional climate advocates also took to social media to denounce the report.
“50 years from now this decision may well be viewed as the knife that killed any possibility of international agreement to control runaway temperature increases with devastating consequences,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Oregon Democrat, said in a statement.
Alaska industry and union groups released a statement Friday expressing “cautious optimism” following reports the project would be approved.
“With this likely decision, ConocoPhillips will have the approval necessary to begin work on one of the most promising projects in America,” the statement said, co-signed by the Alaska Chamber, the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, the AFL-CIO, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, Alaska Trucking Association, Alaska Petroleum Joint Crafts Council and the Resource Development Council.
Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of Arctic Iñupiat, in a Saturday statement called the reports “encouraging,” adding, “North Slope Iñupiat communities have waited nearly a generation for Willow to advance. We hope, at long last, our communities can begin to realize the benefits Willow will yield to sustain our people and region.”
The Willow project would be one of the biggest oil developments in Arctic Alaska in years. It would cost approximately $8 billion and produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak — a significant amount, given the amount of oil flowing down the trans-Alaska pipeline is now at less than 500,000 barrels per day.
The controversy over whether the Biden administration should approve the project has escalated in recent months, posing a political dilemma for the White House. Conservation and some Indigenous groups have raised the project’s profile via protests and social media.
Meanwhile, Alaska’s congressional delegation, including Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola and moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have pushed hard for approval, arguing the project will be developed in an environmentally responsible way, that it supports North Slope communities and is otherwise critical for Alaska’s economy. Murkowski recently told reporters the Biden administration “damn well better not kill the project, period.” Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan has also advocated strongly for the project.
ConocoPhillips and the delegation also have pushed back on recent reports that the Biden administration could approve a scaled-back version of the project, authorizing two drill sites instead of three. The oil company has said that anything less than three drill sites would not be economically viable.
The Trump administration initially approved the Willow project, but a federal judge threw out that approval in 2021, sending it back to federal agencies for further review.