WASHINGTON — As a candidate, Joseph R. Biden promised voters worried about the warming planet “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.” On Monday, President Biden approved an enormous $8 billion plan to extract 600 million barrels of oil from pristine federal land in Alaska.
The distance between Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge and his blessing on that plan, known as the Willow project, is explained by a global energy crisis, intense pressure from Alaska lawmakers (including the state’s lone Democratic House member), a looming election year and a complicated legal landscape that government lawyers said left few choices for Mr. Biden.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and one of the chief advocates for Willow, which is projected to generate 2,500 jobs and millions in revenue for her state, said the president was inclined to oppose it and “needed to really be brought around.”
Mr. Biden was acutely aware of his campaign pledge, according to multiple administration officials involved in discussions over the past several weeks. Environmental activists had also openly warned that Mr. Biden’s climate record, which includes making landmark investments in clean energy, would be undermined if he approved Willow, and that young voters in particular could turn against him.
Approval of the Willow project marks a turning point in the administration’s approach to fossil fuel development. Until this point, the courts and Congress have forced Mr. Biden to sign off on some limited oil and gas leases. Willow would be one of the few oil projects that Mr. Biden has approved freely, without a court order or a congressional mandate.
And it comes as the International Energy Agency has said that governments must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects if the planet is to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Ultimately, the administration made the internal calculation that it did not want to fight ConocoPhillips, the company behind the Willow project.
ConocoPhillips has held leases to the prospective drilling site for more than two decades, and administration attorneys argued that refusing a permit would trigger a lawsuit that could cost the government as much as $5 billion, according to administration officials who asked not to be identified in order to discuss legal strategy.
“The lease does not give Conoco the right to do whatever they want, but it does convey certain rights,” said John Leshy, who served as the Interior Department’s solicitor under President Bill Clinton. “So the administration has to take that into account. I would not say their hands were tied, but their options were limited by the lease rights.”
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
The leases are essentially a contract and if the Biden administration denied the permits, essentially breached the contract, without what a court considered a valid argument, a judge would likely find in favor of the company, Mr. Leshy said. It would be unusual for a court to simply order the government to issue permits; more likely a judge would award damages, he said.
That figure could include not just compensation for investments ConocoPhillips has already made but also profits that the company could have gotten if it had been allowed to drill, Mr. Leshy said, putting a potential judgment into the billions of dollars.
Ms. Murkowski said she believed the legal argument was the turning point for Mr. Biden. “There was no way around the fact that these were valid existing lease rights,” she said. “The administration was going to have to deal with that reality.”
To try to minimize the fallout, the Biden administration demanded concessions. It slashed the size of the project from five drilling sites to three. ConocoPhillips agreed to return to the government leases covering about 68,000 acres in the drilling area, which lies within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. And the administration said it would put in place new protections for a nearby coastal wetland known as Teshekpuk Lake. Those measures would effectively form a “firewall” that would prevent the Willow project from expanding, the administration said.
Mr. Biden also intends to designate about 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean near shore in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as off limits for future oil and gas leasing. And the Interior Department plans to issue new rules to block oil and gas leases on more than 13 million of the 23 million acres that form the petroleum reserve.
But several of those measures could be revoked by a future administration, and none of them seemed to appease environmental groups, which termed the project a “carbon bomb.”
“The announcement is nothing more than window dressing,” Ben Jealous, president of the Sierra Club, said in an interview. “If President Biden were sitting here I’d tell him don’t spit on us and tell us that it’s raining, Mr. President.”
He called the Willow approval “a major breach of trust” and warned that with it, Mr. Biden has alienated many of his supporters, particularly young voters.
“President Biden’s decision to move forward with the Willow Project abandons the millions of young people who overwhelmingly came together to demand he stop the project and protect our futures,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate change advocacy group.
Earthjustice, an environmental group, said it would sue to stop the project as soon as Wednesday and expects to be joined by several other organizations. Environmental groups argued that the administration had the legal authority to deny ConocoPhillips a permit and should have done so based on a federal environmental review that found “substantial concerns” about the project’s impact on the climate, the danger it poses to freshwater sources and the way it threatens migratory birds, caribou, whales and other animals that inhabit the region.
The Willow project would be constructed on the nation’s largest swath of undeveloped land, about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Some analysts said Mr. Biden’s decision could ultimately help him with moderates and independents, given elevated gas prices amid an energy crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Republican attacks that Democratic climate policies are jeopardizing American energy independence.
“I think the White House feels the president has strong climate credentials now, but that he does need to reach out to working class voters in swing states who care about gasoline prices,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate aide in the Clinton administration who now works at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank.
But Mr. Bledsoe said he also thought the administration needed to make a stronger case publicly that the Willow project will not make a large contribution to the climate crisis.
“The problem with climate is not supply, it’s demand,” he said. “The world is awash in oil and other countries will supply the oil if we don’t. The question is, can we reduce demand through substitute technologies? And that’s where the administration has been very strong.”
The burning of oil produced by the Willow project would cause 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to a federal analysis. 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 United States, the second-biggest polluter on the planet after China, emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
A key factor was the widespread support Willow enjoyed from lawmakers of both parties, including Mary Peltola, a Democrat and the state’s first Alaska Native elected to Congress; labor unions; and most Indigenous groups in Alaska.
In 2021 the Biden administration defended a Trump-era decision to allow the Willow project to go forward. Last year, it issued a new draft environmental statement that signaled support for Willow and in February, a federal analysis telegraphed that the administration would look for ways to approve a limited version of the project.
When advocates met with Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary, in late February in a last-ditch attempt to persuade her to block the permits, she choked up twice and explained that her agency often had to make difficult choices, according to several people who were present. Ms. Haaland had fought the Willow project when she served as a member of Congress before joining the administration.
A few days later, Alaska lawmakers met with Mr. Biden. “I had had enough conversations with people to believe that there was a better-than-even chance it was going to go our way,” Ms. Murkowski said.
On Sunday night, Ms. Haaland’s deputy, Tommy Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska and is friendly with many of the state’s lawmakers, called Ms. Murkowski and others to walk them through the decision, members of Congress said.
ConocoPhillips praised the approval and said the company expected to immediately begin construction on a gravel road to the drill sites. At its peak, Willow will produce about 180,000 barrels of oil a day, but it will be several years before the crude begins to flow.
Nevertheless, the company, oil industry leaders and the state’s lawmakers cast the approval as a signal that Mr. Biden agreed with their argument that he cannot demand the oil industry ramp up production to keep gas prices low while also imposing restrictions.
“Alaska cannot carry the burden of solving our global warming problems alone,” Ms. Peltola said.
Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, said administration officials have told lawmakers that they will defend the decision in court from environmental groups. Mr. Sullivan said the Alaska delegation and others were already preparing an amicus brief in defense of the decision.
“This is going to be the next hurdle, and it will be a big battle,” Mr. Sullivan said.