By: BBC – The company behind the Willow project, ConocoPhillips, says it will create local investment and thousands of jobs.
But the $8bn (£6.6bn) proposal faced a torrent of online activism in recent weeks, particularly among youth activists on TikTok.
Opponents argue it should be halted over its climate and wildlife impacts.
Located on Alaska’s remote North Slope, it is the largest oil project in the region for decades.
It is slated to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day.
According to US Bureau of Land Management estimates, that means it will generate up to 278 million metric tonnes of CO2e over its 30-year lifetime – the equivalent of adding two million cars to US roads every year.
CO2e is a unit used to express the climate impact of all greenhouse gases together as if they were all emitted as carbon dioxide.
Environmental activists have argued the project’s approval is inconsistent with President Biden’s pledges to lead on climate action.
More than one million letters of protest have been written to the White House, and a Change.org petition calling for Willow to be halted drew more than three million signatures.
But all three lawmakers who represent Alaska in Congress, including one Democrat, pushed for the project’s approval, touting it as a much-needed investment in the region’s communities.
They also argued it would help boost domestic energy production and lessen the country’s reliance on foreign oil.
So why has a president who has embraced strong action on climate change just approved a project dubbed a “carbon bomb”?
It’s because Willow is all about politics and the law – and not the environment.
While running as a candidate back in 2020, Joe Biden promised that there would be “no more drilling on federal lands, period”. That promise was broken last year when the administration announced plans to sell drilling leases, under pressure from the courts.
The White House will likely say that the role of the courts has also influenced the Willow decision.
Oil company ConocoPhillips have held the lease since 1999 and would have had a strong case to appeal if their plans had been turned down.
The Biden administration is obviously aware that, from a purely climate perspective, the project can’t really be justified. So, as a sop to opponents, they’ve tried to balance the approval with new bans on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Ocean.
Most environmentalists aren’t buying that trade off.
Willow is also deeply political.
With a presidential election in 18 months, Mr Biden is keen to be seen as a centrist, concerned about gas supply and prices for US citizens.
But, in giving the green light to drilling, he now risks the support of many young people who voted for him in large numbers in 2020.