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Democrats Pressure Biden to Reject Willow Project’s Arctic Drilling

Experts say the oil and gas drilling project in Alaska would destroy the president’s climate legacy if approved.

President Joe Biden talks to reporters after returning to the White House on January 30, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers from the U.S. Senate and House — as well as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have written to President Joe Biden imploring him to put the last nail in the coffin of an “ill-conceived and misguided” oil and gas drilling project in Alaska that experts say would destroy the president’s climate legacy if approved in any form.

Led by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety, the letter urges Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to reject final approval of the 30-year ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.

“No version of the Willow [Master Development Plan (MDP)] is consistent with your commitments to combat the climate crisis and promote environmental justice, especially as reflected in the Inflation Reduction Act, historic legislation on which we all collaborated to achieve these crucial goals,” the letter states.

“If allowed to proceed,” the lawmakers argue, the Willow project “would pose a significant threat to U.S. progress on climate issues,” citing estimates that the project could unleash upwards of $19.8 billion in climate-related damages.

The letter comes days after White House officials floated the possibility of a scaled-back Willow Project, but environmentalists have said, as Common Dreams reported Wednesday, that “no form of this project is OK.”

The Bureau of Land Management has estimated that even a scaled-back version would emit around 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year and Earthjustice, which has fought Willow in court, has warned that the approval request now before the Interior Department “would bring at least 219 wells, 267 miles of pipelines, and 30 miles of roads to a vast public lands area in Alaska’s Western Arctic, permanently altering a globally significant and ecologically rich landscape.”

In their letter, the lawmakers tell Biden and Haaland that the only course of action should be “no action,” following the release of the final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) on the project earlier this year. According to the letter:

The final SEIS includes a preferred alternative that would defer one drill site and require additional analysis for another, but we fear that the Willow MDP is intended to serve as an infrastructure hub that anchors a decades-long push towards increased drilling in the Western Arctic. Climate damage is unlikely to stop with the first phase of the Willow project; your Administration needs to draw the line now.

In a separate letter on Friday, the grassroots advocacy group Progressive Democrats of America also urged Biden to recognize the historic and legacy-building opportunity in rejecting the Willow project completely.

“We appeal to what is most honest, wise, and most courageous in you,” states the group’s letter, which was signed by leaders and members of PDA chapters nationwide. “To the elder in you. To the grandfather in you. Do not gamble with our lives and with the lives of generations yet unborn. Reject the Willow Oil Project.”

Grijalva and Markey were joined in the bicameral letter by Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Rep. Jamaal Bowman(D-N.Y.), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal(D-Wash.), Rep. Ro Khanna(D-Calif.), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), Sen. Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Rep. Gwen S. Moore (D-Wis.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-N.Y.), Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-Vt.), Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren(D-Mass.), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

“The Willow Project would lead to over 9 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year,” said Rep. Khanna in a social media post Friday night. “It would be a victory for Big Oil and a huge step backwards on climate.”

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