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Biden to put Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling even as he readies approval for Willow oil project



President Biden on Monday will announce sweeping protections for more than 16 million acres of land and water in Alaska, as he prepares to approve a massive oil drilling project that has drawn intense criticism from climate activists and young voters.

The president will declare the entire Arctic Ocean off limits to oil and gas leasing and development, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement. The Interior Department will also announce that it will write new regulations protecting nearly 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the nation’s largest piece of public land, including ecologically sensitive areas that provide habitat for thousands of caribou and shorebirds.

The announcement comes as the administration is poised to approve the multibillion-dollar Willow project on Alaska’s North Slope as soon as Monday, according to two individuals briefed on the matter who asked for anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

The administration official declined to confirm the timing of the Willow decision. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed on Friday that a final decision on the project had not been made.

The new protections appear intended as an olive branch to environmentalists and young voters who have blasted the approval of Willow, calling it incompatible with the president’s ambitious climate goals. The approval of the project near the city of Nuiqsut would likely allow the construction of hundreds of miles of roads and pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine and a processing facility.

The new protections will extend to the Teshekpuk Lake as well as the Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay Special Areas, according to the White House official.

The region around Nuiqsut is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. Its average temperature has risen 4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — more than three times the global average, according to a Washington Post analysis of temperature data.

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The thawing of permafrost has created the Teshekpuk Lake, a 22-mile-wide reservoir that lies nearly 70 miles west of Nuiqsut (pronounced noo-IK-sut). The lake is home to thousands of migrating caribou and roughly 600,000 shorebirds and more than 78,000 molting geese, along with polar bears and other species.

In recent weeks, Biden administration officials had suggested to environmentalists that they might pair approval of the Willow project with new conservation measures in Alaska, but their proposals largely failed to win over leading green groups.

John D. Podesta, a top White House climate adviser, on Thursday rejected the notion that environmental groups had extracted any concessions from the administration on Willow.

“I don’t think we were ever in negotiations with environmental groups,” Podesta told reporters on the sidelines of an event hosted by the American Council on Renewable Energy.

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This is a developing story and will be updated.