Biden administration approves Alaska’s Willow Project

Final decision opens up 3 drilling sites for ConocoPhillips after separate decision to protect almost 16 million acres of state land from development
Reaction as Biden administration approves Alaska’s Willow Project
Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 6:27 AM AKDT|Updated: Mar. 13, 2023 at 6:09 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The massive North Slope oil development known as the Willow Project was approved Monday morning, paving the way for ConocoPhillips Alaska to begin work.

The Department of the Interior gave its final decision of the Willow Master Development Plan, as it’s formally called, in a release on its website, giving ConocoPhillips Alaska the green light to start developing one of the state’s largest oil and gas field on the North Slope.

The final decision listed the preferred alternative for calling for up to three drill sites, compared to the five that had been favored by ConocoPhillips Alaska. The three drilling pads would cover an area of 380 acres out of a total of 200,000 acres that the Bear Tooth Unit covers.

The Bureau of Land Management released a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Feb. 1, the final one in its evaluation of the Willow Project. In it, the agency identified what it called “flaws” in an August 2021 decision by the U.S. District Court of Alaska that stopped permits of the project.

Eight stakeholders participated in the study, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Native Village of Nuiqsut, the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the nearby City of Nuiqsut, North Slope Borough officials, and employees at the State of Alaska.

The U.S. Department of Interior said last month that it would make a final decision “no sooner than 30 days” after the impact statement, targeting an early March time period for the decision.

ConocoPhillips Alaska has said the project is estimated to produce 180,000 barrels of oil each day once it reaches its peak, delivering at least $8 billion in revenue for the federal government. The company added that more than 2,500 construction jobs could be created, with 300 longterm positions opening up.

In comparison, the biggest oil project in North America, Prudhoe Bay, delivered around 1.5 million barrels of oil per day at its peak operation from 1979 to 1989, according to BP Alaska.

Shortly after the news broke Monday, ConocoPhillips Alaska put out a release saying it “welcomes” the record of decision for Alternative E, the plan to use three drill pads. The company added that it expects to begin constructing gravel roads to the area immediately.

“This was the right decision for Alaska and our nation,” ConocoPhillips Chairman and CEO Ryan Lance said in the release. “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security, all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities.”

The proposed development has come with its share of supporters and detractors: supporters say it would help bring Alaska and the U.S. into an era of energy independence, while opponents have argued that the project would add to the climate change crisis by pumping fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere. Opponents have gone as far to refer to it as a “carbon bomb.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy responded to the news Monday by celebrating the approval of Willow, but also criticizing the Biden administration’s call to restrict nearly 16 million of acres of land on the North Slope from oil and natural gas development, protecting 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and 2.8 million acres in the Beaufort Sea.

“It’s disgraceful that the Biden administration thinks that this is a compromise that will benefit America,” Dunleavy said. “Taking future oil production in Alaska off the map won’t decrease global oil consumption. It will just shift the market and give leverage to producers in countries that don’t have our high standards for the environment and human rights. In the end, every American pays the price when President Biden restricts our ability to develop our own energy resources.”

Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner-Designee John Boyle went further in saying that the Biden administration is “offering up Alaska as a sacrifice” to appease environmentalists.

“Forestalling development across 16 million acres to atone for an energy project barely 500 acres is emblematic of an environmental fanaticism that should concern all rational people,” Boyle said. “We Alaskans are left hoping for a future day when federal policy isn’t served with a pitcher of green Kool-Aid.”

Regarding the environmental effects the project would have, Dunleavy said in a conference call with reporters that he believes that drilling operations in the United States are cleaner and better controlled than those in other countries.

“I think what really fascinates me — and really what is not being asked, and really explored — is this notion that somehow North America and Alaska is contained within this hermetically sealed dome in which the world the wind currents just pass over Alaska, or that we can capture carbon solely in Alaska with some imaginary process,” Dunleavy said. “It defies logic. If the Chinese are doing certain things in the atmosphere — that impacts us. If they’re producing 180,000 barrels more in the Middle East, that impacts us. So certainly, there’s an impact.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation has roundly supported development in the area, with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski telling reporters on a Feb. 14 video call that the Biden administration “damn well better not kill the project, period.”

On Monday, Murkowski gushed about the news of the approval in a press release from all three Alaskan representatives.

“We can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” Murkowski said. “After years of relentless advocacy, we are now on the cusp of creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues, improving quality of life on the North Slope and across our state, and adding vital energy to TAPS to fuel the nation and the world.”

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who has voiced a strong support for the Willow Project and since the Bureau of Land Management review came out last month, called the record of decision “critically important” to Alaska’s economy.

“This decision is also crucial for our national security and environment,” Sullivan said. “Producing much-needed American energy in Alaska with the world’s highest environmental standards and lowest emissions enhances the global environment.

“In particular, I’d like to commend the Alaskans who live on the North Slope, whose ancestors have inhabited the lands closest to this project for thousands of years, and who bravely spoke out — even as far-left, Lower 48, eco-colonialist NGOs continued their efforts to silence Alaska Native voices.”

Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola has supported the project since she first ran for Alaska’s lone House seat in 2022, a seat that was previously held for 49 years by the late Rep. Don Young, who also supported Willow.

“Today, the people of Alaska were heard,” Peltola said. “Now, it’s on us here in Alaska to make sure that we make the best of this opportunity — that we use the revenues and jobs and economic opportunity from this project to make investments in the future of Alaska. We need to build up our schools, our housing stock, our rural Internet and electric grids, and more, in order to make this a truly 21st-century economy. We can make Alaska a national and global example of what an energy bridge to the future truly looks like, and I am looking forward to meeting this challenge.”

Detractors of the project have pointed to numerous campaign promises from the Biden administration to end oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters, amid growing concerns of Earth’s climate health. A petition has accumulated over 3.2 million signatures as of March 12.

The Department of the Interior said in a statement on Feb. 1 that it had “substantial concerns” about the project, due to the potential greenhouse gas emissions that would fuel climate change and harm wildlife populations in Alaska.

The Center for Western Priorities bills itself as a nonpartisan conservation and advocacy group that works to put out accurate information on environmental issues, and said Monday that the Willow Project is projected to produce up to 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years, directly conflicting with Biden’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

“With today’s decision, President Biden has dug himself a massive hole when it comes to public lands and the energy transition,” Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said. “If the Biden administration is serious about their commitments to address the climate and nature crises, it’s imperative that the president double down on durable, meaningful action.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the nation’s biggest nature conservation nonprofit organizations, condemned the decision in a statement, saying Biden approved of the project “knowing full well that it’ll cause massive and irreversible destruction.”

“Willow would permanently scar the largest undeveloped area in the United States, jeopardize the health and traditional practices of nearby Indigenous communities, and harm essential wildlife habitat for polar bears, migratory birds, caribou and other iconic species,” the release from Kristen Monsell said. Monsell is a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Wilderness Society, another one of the nation’s leading conservation organizations, said in a statement that the decision highlights the need for a climate plan on public lands.

“It’s time for the administration to change the way it approaches drilling for oil on public lands if it has any hope of meeting its own climate commitments and leading on the kind of fundamental shift in energy policy that a livable future demands,” Alaska Senior Regional Director Karlin Itchoak said. “This is a crushing step backward at a time when we need this administration to make every leasing and permitting decision through the lens of a comprehensive plan to make public lands part of the climate solution.”

Nagruk Harcharek, President of the nonprofit Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, said that support for the project did not interfere with acting as a steward of the land.

“We would not — as a subsistence-based Iñupiat culture — we would not be in support of a project if we thought at any moment it was going to threaten that way of life,” Harcharek said.

President and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association Kara Moriarty reiterated the broad support the project received within the state is unusual, garnering support from nearly all elected officials at numerous levels of government in addition to many Native voices.

“I have not seen this level of coordination and broad support from such a variety of groups in Alaska expressing their support for this project,” Moriarty said.

The Alaska Policy Advisor at the Defenders of Wildlife Pat Lavin countered the idea that the Willow decision was representative of the will of the majority, highlighting the social media activism aimed to stop the project and raise awareness.

“It’s ... a big step in the wrong direction from a climate perspective,” Lavin said.

Despite Biden’s campaign calls to curb climate change, thousands of permits were issued in the first six months of his presidency in 2021 to drill for oil on federal and tribal lands.

As the Willow Project gets the green light, the Biden administration is taking other steps to stop drilling in other areas of Alaska’s North Slope. On Sunday, a report came out that the administration was attempting to prevent or limit oil drilling in 16 million acres in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.