In early February, the Biden Administration recommended the approval of a massive oil drilling project on the North Slope of Alaska. The Willow project would be the largest proposed oil and gas development on U.S. federal lands, producing about 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years. The environmental community reacted swiftly and harshly to the decision, calling it, for example, a “carbon bomb” that will “speed up the climate crisis in the Arctic.”
But the Willow project is not the only major fossil fuel expansion the Biden Administration is allowing to move forward in Alaska. Although it has not been discussed much in the national press, not far away, the Biden Administration is also backing a controversial 870-mile natural gas pipeline. The pipeline would transport up to 3.9 billion cubic feet of gas per day from Alaska’s North Slope to a southern liquefaction and export terminal to be converted to liquefied natural gas (LNG) and shipped primarily to Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
“Biden’s recent approval of the Willow oil extraction project shows that he will go with the interests of the oil and gas industry over what is best for Americans,” said Arleigh Hitchcock, an organizer for the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition. “I have little faith in him holding to his emissions pledges. And he absolutely will not hold to them if these megaprojects like the proposed Alaska LNG project happen.”
Referring to the Alaska LNG project, which would bisect Alaska from north to south, as a simple pipeline is misleading. In total, the $40-billion undertaking would consist of a gas treatment plant located in the northern Prudhoe Bay; two gas pipelines connecting production units within the treatment plant; the 807-mile main pipeline to the liquefaction facilities; eight compressor stations and a heater station along the pipeline; and an LNG export terminal in Nikiski, along Cook Inlet near Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.
According to government estimates, the potential greenhouse gas emissions for the pipeline and all the associated facilities is just under 18 million tons of greenhouse gases per year (carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e). That’s the equivalent of the pollution from around 3.5 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles driven for one year. Almost half of these emissions (8.6 million tons of greenhouse gases) would come from the proposed LNG terminal. These numbers do not include lifecycle emissions generated in the extraction process or downstream during further processing, so are likely an understatement of the project’s total greenhouse gas emissions potential. A life cycle analysis in the supplemental environmental impact study for the project released in January estimates that end-use power generation without carbon capture would result in about 3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The project by itself would dwarf the carbon impact of all other human activities in Alaska,” said Hitchcock. “Alaska could totally decarbonize except the proposed pipeline and our carbon footprint would still nearly triple what it is today.”
Many Alaskan elected officials support the Alaska LNG project. The fossil fuel industry accounts for about one-quarter of Alaska’s jobs and about one-half of its overall economy, not to mention the direct payments made to residents each year as part of the industry’s dividend fund, made up of oil and gas royalties. In August 2022, Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan threw their support behind the Alaska LNG Project in a joint letter touting its economic and energy security benefits.
The pipeline “would provide a supply of long-term, clean natural gas critical to our energy security and the growing global demand for energy, given Alaska has enough available gas to reduce our reliance on authoritarian foreign adversaries,” the senators wrote.
But climate change is also rapidly threatening Alaska’s infrastructure and challenging its existing industries, as sea levels rise and permafrost melts. The climate implications of the Alaska LNG project are far from the only environmental impact expected.
According to government estimates, the project would permanently damage 11,762 acres of wetlands, with the pipeline crossing more than 550 water bodies. In September 2020, the Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity, and Earthjustice brought a lawsuit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), claiming that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to analyze the Alaska LNG project’s impacts on endangered species including polar bears, Cook Inlet beluga whales, and North Pacific right whales, among other environmental problems.
While FERC approved the pipeline project, then-FERC Chairman Richard Glick, who stepped down at the start of the new Congress in January, dissented from the decision in January 2020, saying the decision violated both the Natural Gas Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Glick accused the commission of not adequately wrestling with the project’s adverse environmental impacts.
“Many of the challenges presented by this project are first-of-their-kind and demand in-depth and rigorous examination,” Glick said. “And yet, the Commission rushed to issue this certificate while many unknowns still linger. The need for such haste, particularly against a backdrop of a global pandemic, a cratering LNG market, and little reason to believe that the developers were anywhere near ready to commence construction of the project has never been explained.”
Erin Colón, a senior attorney in Earthjustice’s Alaska office, said even considering the Ukraine war’s increase in demand for natural gas since FERC’s decision, “it is hard to see how this project, which would be far off into the future, could compete economically with the 15 or so proposed LNG export terminals that have already been approved in the lower 48. That is the calculus that caused ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and BP to back out of the project years ago, and is probably also why the analysis from the Department of Energy takes no position on whether there will be demand for gas from the project.”
Colon said Earthjustice’s three largest concerns are the project’s impacts on the climate, critically endangered Cook Inlet belugas, and wetlands.
“Alaska and the Arctic are disproportionately affected by climate change, and many Alaska Native communities and ways of life are particularly vulnerable to climate change, which would be accelerated by commercializing North Slope gas,” Colon said. “For Cook Inlet belugas, reducing human-caused noise in the inlet, especially from large vessel traffic, is the number one priority for their recovery. This project would increase the amount of large vessel traffic in Cook Inlet by 42 to 74 percent.”
The pipeline project will impact global warming, and vice versa. According to an August 2022 study in the scientific journal Communications Earth & Environment, the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the planet as a whole since 1979. This heating puts a question mark next to the plans of any major Arctic building project. Alaska’s frozen season has grown shorter at an average rate of about four days per decade, according to the supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. “This jeopardizes the use of construction techniques that rely on permafrost and ice roads, especially when considered over the 30-year lifetime of the pipeline….There will be an estimated 30 percent reduction in ice road construction days in the winter season by 2050.”
Nonetheless, the mere prospect of the pipeline’s construction caused the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) to nearly triple the state’s proven natural gas reserves from 2020 to 2021, the most of any state. The EIA says that large volumes of previously stranded Alaskan natural gas resources are now considered proved reserves due to the Mainline Pipeline connecting the northern Alaska gas fields to an LNG terminal.
In October, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel held a summit in Japan focused on the Alaska LNG project and with the same emphasis as the Alaskan senators. In case his message was unclear, Emanuel shortly thereafter Tweeted: “No need for Russian gas when #Americastands ready to supply it.”
The pipeline could also spur the development of other oil and gas projects in the region. One example is the recently proposed Cook Inlet Hydrogen Hub. Gas from the Alaska LNG pipeline could jump start the production of ammonia for fertilizer and hydrogen for fuel at the plant. Another idled plant in the Cook Inlet region, the Kenai Nitrogen Operations Facility, could also potentially use natural gas from the pipeline for fertilizer production.
Lead photo: The proposed Alaska LNG pipeline will be buried underground, except for a few water crossings, unlike the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, pictured at top, which is above ground. Photo by GRID-Arendal.