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Alaska oil project gets the green light

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today the Biden administration approved a massive new oil drilling project in Alaska. It's known as the Willow Project. Environmental advocates say greenlighting it violates the president's climate goals and that new protections to limit or block future drilling in the Arctic are not enough. Liz Ruskin with Alaska Public Media joins me now. And, Liz, there's a lot going on here. Start with just helping me understand the Willow Project, what it actually is. This is an $8 billion plan.

LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: Right. And what the Biden administration approved amounts to more than 200 wells in northwest Alaska. It's an area the size of Indiana that's called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. ConocoPhillips has had leases there since 1999. The scale of the project is a bit smaller than what the company proposed, but it would still produce as much as 180,000 barrels a day. Alaska's congressional delegation is celebrating; so are the state's largest and most powerful Alaska Native organizations. They say this project means jobs and revenues that will sustain the region and their Indigenous culture for years to come.

KELLY: So a lot of people celebrating, but it sounds like environmental groups are not among them. What are they saying?

RUSKIN: Well, everyone expects that they'll file a lawsuit to challenge this decision. They're angry and dismayed. Climate advocates are especially focused on the significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions that will come from the oil produced at Willow. I talked to Karlin Itchoak. He's the Alaska director for the Wilderness Society. And he says this new oil will make it even harder to transition to renewable energy.

KARLIN ITCHOAK: It's just taking steps backwards at a time when we need this administration to make every leasing and permitting decision through the lens of a comprehensive plan to make public lands part of the climate solution.

RUSKIN: The project has a lot of support on the North Slope of Alaska, but there's significant opposition from the city and tribe of Nuiqsut. That's a small community the closest to where Willow would be developed.

KELLY: I do want to note the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet. What do people who live there - Alaskans who support the Willow project - say about the climate impact of the project?

RUSKIN: Well, I asked Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola exactly that. She believes human-caused climate change is a huge problem plaguing Alaska, but she says the state needs Willow to make the transition to a renewable fuel economy and just to fund government services.

MARY PELTOLA: Yes, I agree there is a climate crisis, but the whole world can't tell Alaska to shutter its business until the world has come up with solutions.

RUSKIN: I should mention that this green light for Willow comes less than 24 hours after the administration announced new limits on drilling in the western Arctic.

KELLY: That's interesting. Briefly, Liz, what are the limits?

RUSKIN: They would stiffen protection on sensitive lands in the National Petroleum Reserve and also close the last bit of the Arctic Ocean that's under federal control to oil development.

KELLY: All right.

RUSKIN: Almost every environmental group I've heard from says that this trade-off, allowing a massive oil project to move forward while limiting future development...

KELLY: That it won't be worth it. Right. OK. That is Liz Ruskin with Alaska Public Media. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liz Ruskin - Alaska Public Media