Willow oil project in Alaska: the reversal of Joe Biden, under legal and political pressure


Aerial view of an exploration site for the Willow oil drilling project by the ConocoPhilipps Group in northern Alaska in 2019.

“No more oil drilling on federal lands. Point. Point. Point. It’s a disaster to do this in the Arctic, a big disaster.” : thus spoke Joe Biden, evoking the melting of the glaciers and the fate of the caribou, in February 2020. The current president was then campaigning in New Hampshire for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the president is not the candidate, and the Biden administration approved, on Monday March 13, on the sly, the launch of a gigantic oil project north of the Arctic Circle, in the National Petroleum Reserve, carried by the Texan giant Conoco Phillips. Seven billion dollars (6.5 billion euros) of investment, to eventually extract 180,000 barrels of oil per day, or the equivalent of 40% of Alaska’s current oil production.

The Biden administration, embarrassed by this affair, announced a whole series of measures to prevent offshore drilling on the coasts of the Arctic Ocean, on 12,000 square kilometers in the Beaufort Sea. It reduced from five to three the drillings that ConocoPhillips will be able to do, while the latter was forced to return 230 square kilometers of land it had in concession to preserve wildlife, in particular caribou. More than half of the national oil reserve, a huge area rich in hydrocarbons identified in the 1920s and three times as large as Belgium, will be sanctuarized. “It’s all just dressing up”lamented to the New York Times Ben Jealous, president of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, who talks about “a major breach of trust”.

Indeed, the precedent is considerable. It is the largest oil project in Alaska, while the Prudhoe Bay field, discovered in 1968, is running out, to the point that the operator BP has handed over to the small Texas producer Hilcorp. It revives the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which transported nearly 1,300 kilometers to Valdez, on the Pacific coast, more than 2.1 million barrels at its peak in 1988, but now only transports 480 000. It shows that the virgin lands of Alaska are not closed to oil exploitation.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers In Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the convicts of the cold dream of natural gas to replace oil

“We have needs! »

For years, however, the oil companies had been withdrawing, even shunning exploitation auctions, because of the public opprobrium affecting any exploitation of Alaska’s subsoil, the very costly isolation of the territory and the good hydrocarbons market that abound in Texas. Why such a change of direction? First, the Biden administration had little choice. Basically, federal lands are meant to be exploited and the White House does not, according to the courts, have the ability to veto any exploitation.

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