U.S. government balances between Arctic protection and exploitation | Polarjournal
Located in northern Alaska, the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska was created in 1923 by then U.S. President Harding to reduce the U.S. Navy’s dependence on coal. Since the 1990s, numerous oil and gas exploitation projects have been conducted in this more than 95,000 km2 ecologically important area and along its coast. Image: Bureau of Land Management

Two years ago, when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took their jobs in the White House, environmentalists and conservationists were full of praise for the immediate halt to a controversial oil development project in the only U.S. Arctic National Park. Two years later, the euphoria in the same circles has turned into anger and fierce criticism. Because the government has made two decisions for Alaska that is a very difficult balancing act between wanting to protect the environment in the Arctic while promoting the economic reality.

Last Sunday, the U.S. government announced that it will give the green light to ConocoPhillips’ US$8.7 billion “Willow” oil development project in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPRA), albeit in a scaled-down form. Only a few hours earlier, the government had announced that it would place a marine area of around 11,300 square kilometers off the coast of the NPRA completely under protection and thus block it for resource extraction. In addition, a bill would be introduced that would further protect an additional 52,600 square kilometers of areas designated as “Special Areas” from commercial activity.

The government-approved “Willow” project is an oil development project by the ConcocoPhillips corporation in the western part of the NPRA, originally approved by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump in 2020. However, court rulings resulted in a halt to the project and a re-evaluation of the environmental requirements. In the end, the authorities approved only three well fields instead of the five originally submitted (the government had even proposed only two). Furthermore, the Group had to return an additional 275 square kilometers of the originally leased area. “The measures create an additional buffer for extraction activities near the calving grounds and migratory routes of the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, an important subsistence resource for nearby Alaska Native communities,” the Interior Department writes of the decision. Still, the project will generate about US$8.7 billion in revenue, and the group promised about 3,000 new jobs and a lifespan of about 30 years. The yield from the more than 200 drilling wells is estimated at 600 million barrels of oil, and the cost is $8 billion to $10 billion. Experts are convinced that the project will increase oil production in Alaska by up to 40 percent. This is intended to support the U.S. energy supply over the next few decades.

The protection project also presented by the government plans to completely protect large parts of the coast off the NPRA and thus remove them from the access of development projects in the shelf area of the Beaufort Sea for a long time. In addition, the government will further protect the “special areas” in the NPRA, which are important due to their ecological and historical significance, from future extraction projects by tightening the laws. This law is still being drafted and will then be put out for public review. Nevertheless, officials see these planned measures as another milestone in the current administration’s efforts to meet U.S. climate goals for 2030 and 2050 and to place Arctic regions under special protection.

With the administration’s decision to provide more protection in the Arctic region on the one hand, while at the same time approving a project that climate and environmentalists have called a “carbon bomb” and that has drawn widespread criticism, the Biden administration is performing a difficult balancing act. In business and political circles, many Alaskans welcome the decision. They see it as a decision that reflects the reality that the U.S. is in right now. The war in Ukraine and rising tensions with formerly allied Arab states have caused a major shakeup in U.S. energy supplies. Therefore, they want to focus more on self-sufficiency again and thus strengthen the economy. According to them, this is the only way to achieve the climate targets in the long term.

On the other hand, many environmental and nature conservation organizations see the decision as a genuflection to the all-powerful energy lobby and feel betrayed by the government. The decision also faces opposition and criticism from within Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ own ranks, and even from residents in the region surrounding the project. The emissions from the oil produced, which experts estimate at around 9 million metric tons of CO2 per year, weigh too heavily. Even the announced protective measures in the Arctic region can no longer help the thawing permafrost and the disappearing sea ice. According to commentators in U.S. media, it is not unlikely that the “Willow” decision could also melt the approval for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the next elections in 2024.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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