Biden calls approval of Willow oil field, with environmental concessions, ‘a hell of a trade-off’

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In his first public explanation for his approval of the controversial Willow oil project in Alaska, Democratic President Joe Biden said Friday that he wanted to reject the project but was advised by lawyers that owner ConocoPhillips would likely win in court if he did.

Biden called the decision “difficult,” but touted environmental protections to reduce the project’s impact that came with the approval. The president was answering questions at a news conference alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after addressing the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.

“My strong inclination was to disapprove of it across the board,” he said. “But the advice I got from counsel was that if that were the case, I may very well lose in court — lose that case in court to the oil company. And then not be able to do what I really want to do beyond that, and that is conserve significant amounts of Alaskan sea and land forever.”

Biden said ConocoPhillips had agreed to go with three drill sites. That’s down from an earlier proposal under the Trump administration that would have allowed as many as five drill sites. Biden also said he removed 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from oil and gas drilling just north of Willow, which closes off the federal waters of the Arctic Ocean, though that action was not dependent on his approval of Willow.

“I am banking on, we’ll find out, that the oil company is going to say, not that’s not going to be challenged, and they’re going to go with with three sites,” Biden said. “And the energy that’s going to be produced they’re estimated to account to 1% — 1% of the total production of oil in the world.”

“And so I thought it was a good — the better gamble and a hell of a trade-off to have the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea and so many other places, off limits forever now,” he said.

The administration’s decision last week approving Willow generated enormous blowback, particularly from conservation groups and young voters who say it contradicts Biden’s goals to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

The project is located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. It’s expected to produce 600 million barrels of oil during its 30-year life. The crude burned would release about the same level of annual greenhouse-gas emissions produced by close to 2 million cars.

Alaska politicians and many other groups, including several Alaska Native organizations, supported the project. They argued that it would help create Alaskan jobs and that killing Willow would only shift global oil production to other countries with less stringent environmental rules.

Biden’s statements came as the federal government filed its response in a case in federal court in Alaska brought by several conservation groups seeking to stop the Willow project. The U.S. Department of Justice argues in the 46-page filing that the Interior Department properly reduced the project’s environmental impact, “robustly” analyzed the project’s expected greenhouse-gas emissions, and took other lawful steps to approve Willow.

Biden did not note in his statements on Friday that in the decision, ConocoPhillips also agreed to relinquish about 70,000 acres of its leases at Willow, about one-third of the prospect, though conservation groups have argued that acreage wasn’t relevant to ConocoPhillips’ plans.

As for the administration’s decision limiting drilling in the Arctic Ocean, Alaska oil and gas observers have said industry has shown little interest in the area in recent years. That withdrawal follows on the heels of a decision by former President Barack Obama in 2016 removing 125 million acres of the Arctic Ocean from oil development.

The day Willow was approved, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland released a video statement on social media about the decision explaining that long-held ConocoPhillips leases for oil and gas activity “limited decision space” for the agency.

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