WASHINGTON: The Biden administration, brushing aside climate concerns from environmental groups, approved a controversial oil drilling project on Monday on Alaska's North Slope. The Interior Department gave the green light to US energy giant ConocoPhillips to drill for oil at three sites in the federally owned National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska's pristine western Arctic.

During the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden had vowed not to approve any new oil and gas leases on public lands and he had been under intense pressure by environmentalists not to approve the so-called Willow Project. Alaska lawmakers and other backers of the drilling plan had lobbied strongly for approval of ConocoPhillips's $8 billion project, defending it as a source of several thousand jobs and a contributor to US energy independence, with production of 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak, or some 576 million barrels over 30 years. ConocoPhillips chief executive Ryan Lance welcomed the Interior Department's move as the "right decision for Alaska and our nation," but it was met with immediate criticism from environmental groups.

"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," said Earthjustice president Abigail Dillen.

"We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals." Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, said "the harmful effects of President Biden's decision cannot be overstated.

"Willow will be one of the largest oil and gas operations on federal public lands in the country, and the carbon pollution it will spew into the air will have devastating effects for our communities, wildlife, and the climate," Jealous said.

"We will suffer the consequences of this for decades to come." The Biden administration's approval of the Willow Project came a day after it restricted offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean and barred development in 13 million acres (5.26 million hectares) of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve.

The move, seen as a trade-off for approval of the Willow Project, will protect an area that is a major habitat for wildlife, including grizzly and polar bears, caribou and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, the Interior Department said.

'Carbon bomb'

The Trump administration approved the Willow Project at the tail end of the former president's term, but it was blocked by a judge for further review. The Bureau of Land Management, in an environmental impact analysis in February, approved three drilling sites, while striking down one and deferring consideration of another. Biden has described global warming as an existential threat and promoted the development of renewable energy sources.

Temperatures in Alaska have been rising faster than in other regions of the planet and environmental groups have warned that the oil extraction project would make things worse.

The Willow Project will add 239 million metric tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere over the next 30 years, according to Interior Department calculations, equivalent to the annual emissions of 64 coal-fired power plants. Greenpeace has described it as a "carbon bomb." A petition on Change.org seeking to halt the project garnered more than 3.2 million signatures and a #StopWillow campaign on TikTok drew tens of millions of views.

Alaska's two Republican senators and the state's sole member of the House, Mary Peltola, a native Alaskan and a Democrat, met with Biden earlier this month to urge him to approve the project and they welcomed the green light on Monday.

"The Willow Project is critically important for Alaska's economy, good-paying jobs for our families, and the future prosperity of our state," Senator Dan Sullivan said. "This decision is also crucial for our national security and environment." Biden has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2005, with the goal of achieving a net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050. -AFP