(Washington) The decision is imminent: the American administration must decide on the fate of a major oil project in Alaska, which is putting Joe Biden under pressure, in particular in the face of a huge campaign by environmental associations aimed at convincing him not to not give the green light.
The Democratic president had come to power promising not to allow new oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
But he found himself caught in a years-old battle over the project dubbed Willow by US oil giant ConocoPhillips.
This project was initially approved by the Trump administration, before being temporarily halted in 2021 by a judge, who sent it back for further government review.
Given that Joe Biden has recognized the “existential threat” posed by global warming, and taken many measures in favor of the development of renewable energies, authorizing this oil exploitation would be seen by many as a betrayal.
Symbolically, the drilling would be carried out in a wild area of northern Alaska, in the Arctic, where temperatures are warming up much faster than on the rest of the planet, suffering the full brunt of the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse related to human activity.
But the project’s defenders see it as a source of jobs, a contribution to US energy independence and, for some, an inevitable step in a period of transition to other energy sources.
The response from environmental associations was massive.
“If approved, the Willow project would become the largest oil extraction project on federal lands in the United States,” Greenpeace said, calling it a “carbon bomb.”
“We cannot afford it, as a planet,” asserted the organization Earthjustice.
An online petition on Change.org has garnered over three million signatures.
A wave of videos opposing the project also swept through the social network TikTok. The #StopWillow hashtag had over 150 million views as of midday Thursday.
In early February, the Land Management Office published its environmental analysis, in which it detailed a “preferred alternative”.
The latter would reduce the project to three drilling sites instead of five, with approximately 219 wells. This would allow the production of 576 million barrels of oil over about 30 years, according to the bureau’s estimates.
This would result in the emission of 9.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year. The US agency notes that this amount represents 0.1% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.
A fourth drilling site could then be added, depending on this scenario.
ConocoPhillips had “welcomed” the publication of this report and considered that the proposed alternative was “a viable path for the future development of (its) lease”.
The department responsible for federal lands in the United States had declared that it had “significant concerns”, including concerning this “preferred alternative” and “the direct and indirect emissions of greenhouse gases” that it would cause.
The final decision could select an even different alternative, and further reduce the scale of the project, the ministry had pointed out.
But the economic stakes are enormous.
In early March, three elected officials from Alaska in the US Congress, including Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski but also a Democratic representative, met Joe Biden to ask him to approve oil exploitation.
“We hope the President listens to the voices of Alaska Natives who live on the North Slope, the voices of union leaders and workers willing to help strengthen Alaska’s economy, the voices of security officials underscoring the importance of ‘Willow’ to U.S. energy security,” they said in a statement after the meeting.
The project will cover, they point out, 0.002% of Alaska’s oil reserves.
Joe Biden has promised to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% by 2030, compared to 2005. A goal taken under the Paris Climate Agreement, and which should enable the world’s leading economy to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.