Richard Killmer: Why did the Biden administration approve a huge oil-drilling project in Alaska?

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The Biden administration has given formal approval for a huge oil drilling project in Alaska known as Willow, led by oil giant ConocoPhillips, despite widespread opposition because of its likely environmental and climate impacts.

The president is also expected to announce sweeping restrictions on offshore oil leasing in the Arctic Ocean and across Alaska’s North Slope to limit future oil leases in the region. The Interior Department said it would issue new rules to block oil and gas leases on more than 13 million of the 23 million acres that form the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Richard Killmer
Richard Killmer

Taken together, these two actions seem contradictory and bifurcated.

The restrictions on oil leasing in Alaska and the Arctic are unlikely to offset concerns that the $8 billion Willow project, with the potential to produce more than 600 million barrels of crude over 30 years, will negatively impact our ability to curb climate change.

Burning all that oil could release nearly 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. On an annual basis, that would translate into 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year.

The president has been lobbied fiercely by the oil industry and Alaska lawmakers to approve the Willow project. At the same time, environmental activists and the Native American community closest to the Willow site have fought the project through online campaigns, protests and meetings with federal officials, charging that approval of the project would be a betrayal of Mr. Biden’s pledge to move the nation away from fossil fuels. Climate activists said they were pleased that the president plans to protect the Arctic, but remained outraged that Mr. Biden would approve a project they term a “carbon bomb.”

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental project, said: “Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn’t make sense, and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project.”

According to the two people familiar with the deliberations, the administration concluded that it doesn’t have the legal authority to deny permits to ConocoPhillips, which has long held leases on the land in the petroleum reserve.

The cornerstone of Mr. Biden’s new Arctic environmental pledges is a declaration that the entire Arctic Ocean will be off limits to oil and gas leasing, completing an effort that began under President Barack Obama. Oil industry officials, of course, criticized the planned Arctic protections.

The actions of the Biden Administration on the Willow project put at risk reaching the Administration’s goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030. It also puts in jeopardy the promise that the U.S. and all of the 197 nations that belong to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change made to each other that the world will not get warmer than 1.5 degrees Centigrade (It is currently 1.1 degrees warming). In order to do that, the nations will need to achieve net zero emissions by at least 2050 — if not earlier. The clock is ticking and the Biden Administration, with its decision on the Willow project, just made the goal tougher.

Maybe the administration’s thinking is that the nation needs a new source of oil and gas to get through the transition between now and the time when the world is powered by renewable energy. For instance, six automobile manufacturers say they will only produce electric vehicles after 2035 and people can continue to drive gas-powered cars after that date. Gasoline will continue to be needed even after 2035, but by a reduced amount every year. Every year, the quantity of renewables that are used will increase and fossil fuels usage will decrease.

If that is their thinking, the Biden administration owes us an explanation and a road map that shows how the nation will transition away from fossil fuels. Any new plans for fossil fuel extraction needs to be put in the context of achieving a 50-52% reduction by 2030. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why they are allowing such extensive drilling in Alaska.

— Rev. Richard Killmer is a retired Presbyterian minister living in East Grand Rapids.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Richard Killmer: Why did Biden approve a huge oil project in Alaska?