Scaled down version of Willow oil/gas project approved

Interior Department officials on Monday approved a substantially reduced Willow project, which denies two of five drill sites proposed by ConocoPhillips for developing its master development plan for oil and gas extraction in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The Interior Department’s announcement requires ConocoPhillips to relinquish rights to some 68,000 acres of its leases acquired beginning in the late 1990s, including some 60,000 acres in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area on the North Slope.

The decision drew kudos from Alaska’s congressional delegation, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the Alaska Federation of Natives, and Sen. Joe Manchin D-WV, chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both R-Alaska, and Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, said in an opinion piece published by CNN that they represent Alaskans who are united in strong support of the project and urged swift approval.

“Even those who practice a subsistence lifestyle in Alaska – living primarily off the land and water – rely on boats, snowmachines and ATVs, and those all need fuel,” they wrote. “In rural parts of our state, gasoline prices have been as high as $18 a gallon. That is crippling – both for our economy and for the practice of traditional livelihoods, which new energy supplies will only help.”

Ana Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of the Bethel Native Corp., and co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), said in a written statement from AFN that the project “represents the best of Alaska and the many different organizations including Alaska Native leaders, private industry, labor leaders, and our state Legislature who all understood how critical the Willow project is to our nation’s national security.”


Others disagreed.

Trustees for Alaska, a public interest non-profit law firm in Anchorage, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, the Sierra Club, Environment America, The Wilderness Society, and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. The litigation contends that the Interior Department, multiple agencies, and agency officials were violating an array of laws when authorizing ConocoPhillips’ Willow – the largest new oil and gas project proposed on federal lands. Trustees also said that Earthjustice will be filing an additional lawsuit shortly.

While the Interior Department described its decision to approve the Willow project as a substantially reduced deal that only allowed for three of five drill sites, the plaintiffs in the Trustees’ lawsuit see the project as significantly expanding ConocoPhillips’ extensive oil and gas extraction operation in the Arctic that will become a hub for future industrialization for decades, producing toxic emissions and greenhouse gas pollution.

“Interior attempted to put a shiny gloss over a structurally unsound decision that will, without question, result in a massive fossil fuel project that will reduce access to food and cultural practices for local communities,” said Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska. “This new decision allows ConocoPhillips to pump out massive amounts of greenhouse gases that drive continued climate devastation in the Arctic and world.”

Environmental entities, including The Wilderness Society, remain opposed, saying that with its decision the Biden administration has prioritized corporate profits over the world’s climate. The ConocoPhillips project, which involves an $8 billion oil-drilling project projected to release over 280 million metric tons of greenhouse gases over the next 30 years, The Wilderness Society said in a statement released after the Interior Department announced its decision. The society noted that the Biden administration decision came despite a federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision in its final supplemental environmental impact statement on Feb. 1. At that time the Interior Department issued a separate statement stating “the Department has substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final SEIS, including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”

Friends of the Earth said the BLM’s decision came despite opposition from national and Alaska-based environmental groups who said approving the project contradicts with Biden administration’s climate goals.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy applauded approval of the Willow project, but was critical of the federal government’s plans “that will lock up millions more acres in Alaska that were specifically set aside for oil production and development.”

“Willow is expected to create as many as 2,500 jobs during construction and 300 permanent jobs,” Dunleavy said. “The project is expected to produce about 180,000 barrels of oil a day at its peak and generate at least $8 billion in revenue for federal, state and local governments.”