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Biden hears Oval Office plea for Alaska oil project in lobbying frenzy

March 4, 2023 Updated Sat., March 4, 2023 at 9:40 p.m.

President Joe Biden replies to questions from the media in the South Court Auditorium of the White House on Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C.  (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
President Joe Biden replies to questions from the media in the South Court Auditorium of the White House on Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
By Jennifer A. Dlouhy Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON – Alaska’s congressional delegation personally appealed to President Joe Biden to approve a proposed ConocoPhillips oil development in the state, joining a last-minute lobbying frenzy around the project that’s being cast as a test of his commitment to combating climate change.

The lawmakers, including freshman Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, said they made their case for authorizing the plan to allow drilling from three locations at the Willow project during an Oval Office meeting on Thursday that lasted more than an hour.

In a joint statement, the lawmakers called the conversation with Biden and senior aides “honest and respectful,” saying they “appreciated the president’s recognition of how critical this moment is for Alaska’s future our nation’s energy transition.”

The $8 billion project is forecast eventually to yield 180,000 barrels per day of crude, or about 1.6% of current U.S. production, with a cumulative output of about 600 million barrels. The Interior Department could issue a final decision as soon as Monday.

Willow presents Biden with his biggest climate and energy decision yet. Although the president campaigned on a pledge to block new drilling on public lands and accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, he has also pressed oil companies to boost output to tame prices. The project also has drawn support from Alaska labor unions and some indigenous groups – important constituencies for the White House.

“The president has all the information he needs to make the right decision for Alaska and for the nation, and re-approve a three-pad, economically viable Willow project alternative without delay,” the Alaska lawmakers said.

Residents of Nuiqsut, a village about 36 miles from the proposed development, sent a scathing letter Friday to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland arguing their concerns have been drowned out by the oil industry and corporate power that “reaches into every community and household,” even allegedly tainting the environmental review itself.

Proposals to mitigate Willow’s impact on the community are insufficient, were not suggested by Nuiqsut and tantamount to “payoffs for the loss of our health and culture,” said Native Village of Nuiqsut President Eunice Brower, City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and the city’s vice mayor, Carl Brower, writing in their personal capacities.

Environmental advocates and lawmakers have been outlining legal options for the Biden administration to bolster a possible denial. One memo given to administration officials makes the case that the government could reject ConocoPhillips’s project without breaching the terms of the company’s leases in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Separately, almost two dozen congressional Democrats told Biden in a letter on Friday there’s legal authority for Haaland to block proposed drilling if necessary to mitigate “significantly adverse effects” on its surface resources.

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