U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday approved a massive oil drilling project in Alaska, a move that drew criticism from environmentalists for its potential climate impact.
The Willow Project would be a decades-long oil drilling operation in the National Petroleum Reserve, a vast area of untouched land about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and owned by the federal government.
The project aims to extract up to 600 million barrels of oil, though that oil would take years to reach the market as the project hasn't been built.
Burning all that oil could result in the release of about 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Interior Department.
The Biden administration has estimated that the project would generate about 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually, which is equivalent to the emissions produced by almost 2 million cars on the road each year, according to The New York Times.
The president also announced new protections for federal land and waters in Alaska, a move apparently aimed at tempering criticism over the Willow decision.
The administration moved to protect more than 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska from drilling. In all, the administration will move to protect up to 16 million acres from future leasing for drilling.
"It's insulting that Biden thinks this will change our minds about the Willow project," Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The New York Times. "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."
Biden's approval was welcomed by Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation, a coalition of Alaska Native tribes and groups, and a natural gas and oil industry group.
"Not only will this mean jobs and revenue for Alaska, but it will also be resources that are needed for the country and for our friends and allies," Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in a statement. "The administration listened to Alaska voices. They listed to the delegation as we pressed the case for energy security and national security.''
Frank Macchiarola, the senior vice-president of economics, policy and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a blog on the organization's website: "While we applaud the Biden administration for approving the Willow MDP project, we continue to see mixed signals on energy policy with its latest move to restrict the responsible development of federal lands and waters. By imposing these restrictions, the Department of the Interior appears to be treating their statutory obligations as a bargaining chip."
The Willow project was allowed to have three drill sites, which include up to 199 total wells. Two other drill sites proposed for the project would be denied.
Earthjustice, an environmental law group, is preparing to file a case against the project. They plan to argue that the Biden administration has the authority to protect the resources on Alaska's public lands, CNN reported.
"We are too late in the climate crisis to approve massive oil and gas projects that directly undermine the new clean economy that the Biden Administration committed to advancing," Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said at a statement Monday.
"We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goal," Dillen said.
Christy Goldfuss, who previously worked in the White House during the Obama administration and is a policy chief at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said she was "deeply disappointed" at Biden's decision to approve Willow.
The NRDC estimates that the project would produce greenhouse gas detrimental to the climate and the environment emissions equivalent to that of more than 1 million homes.
"This decision is bad for the climate, bad for the environment and bad for the Native Alaska communities who oppose this and feel their voices were not heard," Goldfuss said, according to The Associated Press.
Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, former mayor of Nuiqsut, a community of around 525 people that is closest to the proposed project, said she is worried about how the project could impact the caribou and the traditional subsistence lifestyle of the residents, AP reported.