“It’s insulting that Biden thinks this will change our minds about the Willow project,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn’t make sense, and it won’t help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project.”
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The decision is sure to invite legal challenges from environmental groups.
The Biden administration intends to approve permits for three drilling sites and deny two others, including one that would have been closest to a coastal wetland known as Teshekpuk Lake, according to two people familiar with the decision who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the announcement. The administration also will deny a road that would have led to the fourth drilling site, the two people said.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Willow decision beyond referring to remarks by Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, on Friday that a final decision hadn’t been made.
Administration officials are moving ahead with the Willow project despite its environmental analysis raised “substantial concerns” about emissions, danger to freshwater sources and threats to migratory birds, caribou, whales and other animals that inhabit the region.
According to the two people familiar with the deliberations, the administration has concluded that it doesn’t have the legal authority to deny permits to ConocoPhillips, which has long held leases on the land in the petroleum reserve.
ConocoPhillips had initially sought five drilling sites for the project and had called the approval of three pads the minimum number that they would find acceptable. The company had indicated that it would back out if there were fewer, saying the project would no longer be financially viable.
In addition to rejecting two of the proposed drilling sites, the people familiar with the decision said the administration also will announce that ConocoPhillips will return about 67,000 acres of land back to the government. The petroleum reserve, located about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.