Willow Is Go, but Arctic Offshore Is No
ConocoPhillips can go ahead with the Willow project, the first field in its Bear Tooth Unit inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). The Biden administration approved a master development plan while constraining its scope. The announcement comes with further limitations on development in the federal reserve and limits on leasing in the Arctic Ocean.
The US Department of the Interior issued a Record of Decision (ROD) regarding the Willow Master Development Plan, approving Alternative E. The decision reduces the original permit application from five drill sites to three sites at the Willow field.
Advocates for the Willow project had cautioned that anything less than three would make the project uneconomic. ConocoPhillips expects to produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day at peak production, boosting the state’s current output by 40 percent.
“With the Trans Alaska Pipeline currently moving around a half-million barrels per day, adding 180,000 more barrels per day from the Willow project is significant not only for the economy but also national security and energy independence,” says Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
ConocoPhillips Alaska put out a release saying it “welcomes” the record of decision and added that it will begin constructing gravel roads immediately.
The tribe and city of Nuiqsut, the nearest community to Willow, has lodged objections about pollution, noise, and wildlife disruptions.
However, a regional advocacy group, Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, praised the decision. Nagruk Harcharek, president of The Voice, says, “The decision reaffirms the widespread support across Alaska Native communities for the carefully designed resource development project and the long-term economic stability it offers for the people of Alaska’s remote North Slope.”
A joint statement from the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the North Slope Borough, and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation thanks the Biden administration, the Congressional delegation, and state leaders for bipartisan support.
“We can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” says Senator Lisa Murkowski. “I thank the administration for listening to Alaskans, rejecting false claims meant to sink this project, and having the courage to make the right decision on Willow.”
Representative Mary Peltola adds, “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.”
The day after the decision was announced, a federal lawsuit was filed claiming that the Department of Interior failed to properly consider the impact to polar bear habitat. Plaintiffs include the Sovereign Iñupiat for A Living Arctic, the Alaska Wilderness League, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, and other organizations.
Give and Take
The Biden administration is proposing to withdraw near-shore federal waters, in brown, from future oil and gas leasing. The green section of the Arctic Ocean was removed from leasing by the Obama administration in 2016.
The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was required to undertake a review of the Willow project after a federal judge in August 2021 vacated the previous administration’s approval of five drill pads. In February, the BLM published a final supplemental environmental impact statement.
Concurrent with the Willow decision, ConocoPhillips is relinquishing rights to approximately 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the NPR-A. This action reduces the footprint of the Bear Tooth unit by one-third while creating a buffer from exploration and development activities near the calving grounds and migratory routes for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd. The US Department of the Interior announced further steps to limit future development in the NPR-A by proposing a rule to add protections for more than 13 million acres designated as Special Areas due to wildlife habitat.
The president is also taking action to designate approximately 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean nearshore as indefinitely off limits for future oil and gas leasing. This action builds on the Obama administration’s 2016 withdrawal under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
“The fact that this Willow ROD comes with the announcement of future legally dubious resource development restrictions on Alaska lands and waters is infuriating,” says Senator Dan Sullivan.
“It’s disgraceful that the Biden administration thinks that this is a compromise that will benefit America,” says Governor Mike Dunleavy. “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.”