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Amid criticism from environmentalists, a new oil project in Alaska is set to get the green light

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Biden administration is expected to announce possibly this week whether it's greenlighting a major ConocoPhillips oil drilling development in the Alaska Arctic. The Willow project would allow more than 200 wells and hundreds of miles of pipeline, some of it near caribou migration paths and valuable bird habitat. Liz Ruskin with Alaska Public Media has been covering this closely, and she joins us now from Anchorage. Welcome to the show.

LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, Liz, where would this drilling take place?

RUSKIN: Willow would be in a huge area of federal land, a reserve the size of Indiana. It's called the National Petroleum Reserve. And just to be clear, Willow is different from the controversy over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But environmental advocates say this area is like the refuge in its value to wildlife.

RASCOE: So President Biden had pledged no new drilling on federal land when he ran for office, so why is this oil project being considered? I would think because these projects take forever to come together, but you tell me more about that.

RUSKIN: Yeah. This was a lease Conoco acquired in 1999, and the development won federal approval in 2020. But then there was a lawsuit requiring a do over, so proponents argue it's not really a new drilling project. But it's substantial and would produce oil for an estimated 30 years.

RASCOE: So who is urging the Biden administration to approve this oil project, you know, besides ConocoPhillips?

RUSKIN: Pretty much the whole Alaska political and business establishment, the entire Alaska legislature, organized labor, Alaska Native leaders, all three members of the congressional delegation. And while the oil industry has been in decline in Alaska, this project would bring up to $10 billion to the state and local governments. Indigenous residents on the North Slope say oil revenues will help sustain their Inupiaq culture.

RASCOE: How are they saying that oil drilling will help to sustain their traditional culture?

RUSKIN: An Alaska legislator from the Arctic, Josiah Patkotak, was in Washington, D.C., outside the Capitol Wednesday, making that case. Patkotak is Inupiaq. They are people who have relied on subsistence whaling for over a thousand years. Just to live where they do, Patkotak says they need the revenue that comes from oil production.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSHUA PATKOTAK: And that's why it's important to underscore the opportunities for a better quality of life, staying away from the third-world conditions that the generation immediately before me grew up in.

RUSKIN: I should say that Patkotak's view is the prevailing opinion among Alaska Native leaders. But in the community closest to where the drilling would be, there's substantial opposition from the mayor and the tribe.

RASCOE: Despite all the support for this, the White House has come under pressure over this pending decision. Why is that?

RUSKIN: Environmental groups and their allies in the Biden administration say approving this oil development would be a terrible move, in part because President Biden has said he's committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and moving away from oil. The oil produced from Willow, when it's burned as fuel, would create a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Opponents liken it to the annual output of 70 or so coal-fired power plants.

RASCOE: That's Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Media in Anchorage. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RUSKIN: Thank you. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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