The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday advanced the controversial Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, releasing the final environmental impact statement before the project can be approved.
The ConocoPhillips proposed Willow drilling plan is a massive and decadeslong project that the state’s bipartisan Congressional delegation says will create much-needed jobs for Alaskans and boost domestic energy production in the US.
But environmental groups fear the impact of the planet-warming carbon pollution from the hundreds of millions of barrels of oil it would produce – and say it will deal a significant blow to President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda.
The final environmental report from the Bureau of Land Management recommends a slightly smaller version of what ConocoPhillips originally proposed, putting the number of drilling sites at three instead of five. The Department of Interior is also recommending other measures to try to lower the pollution of the project, and recommending a smaller footprint of gravel roads and pipelines.
In a statement, the Interior Department said it “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.”
The Biden administration now has 30 days to issue a final decision on the project, after which drilling could begin. In its statement, Interior said it could select a different alternative on the project, including taking no action or further reducing the number of drill sites.
ConocoPhillips and members of the Alaska Congressional delegation have been pushing the administration to finalize the project by the end of February to take advantage of cold and icy conditions needed to drill in the Arctic. If the company misses that window, it could push the project’s start date to next year.
Erec Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, said in a statement that nearly five years of regulatory review should conclude “without delay.” Isaacson added the project is “ready to begin construction immediately” after Interior’s final decision is issued.
According to the Interior Department’s own estimation, the project would produce 629 million barrels of oil over the course of 30 years and would release around 278 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon emissions. Climate groups say that’s equivalent to what 76 coal-fired power plants produce every year.
“The world and the country can’t afford to develop that oil,” said Jeremy Lieb, a senior attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice. Lieb and other advocates are concerned that Willow may be the start of a future drilling boom in the area.
“Willow is just the start based on what industry has planned,” Lieb said. “The total estimate for the amount of oil that could be accessible in the region around Willow is 7 or 8 billion barrels.”
For the Willow project, ConocoPhillips is proposing five drilling sites on federal land in Alaska’s North Slope, and the project would include a processing facility, pipelines to transport oil, gravel roads, at least one airstrip and a gravel mine site.
The project – and the public comment process leading up to it – has also received heavy criticism from the nearby Alaska Native village of Nuiqsut, which some villagers evacuated last year during a gas leak in a ConocoPhillips project in the area. Nuiqsut officials recently released a letter calling the Bureau of Land Management’s public input process “disappointing and inadequate,” criticizing both the Trump and Biden administration’s timeline.
The bureau’s “engagement with us is consistently focused on how to allow projects to go forward; how to permit the continuous expansion and concentration of oil and gas activity on our traditional lands,” Nuiqsut officials wrote in their letter.
Alaska’s entire Congressional delegation – including newly elected Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat – have urged the White House and Interior to approve the project, saying it would be a huge boost to state’s economy.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, in particular, has been urging the White House and Biden personally to greenlight Willow, she told CNN.
“I’ve been pretty persistent on this,” she told CNN in an interview this summer. “Let’s just say, any conversation I’ve ever had with the White House, anyone close to the White House, I’ve brought up the subject of Willow.”
As gas prices spiked last summer, Murkowski, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, and other Senate Republicans tightened the pressure on Biden to approve a major domestic oil drilling project. Environmental advocates, meanwhile, argued the project will not bring US gas prices down any time soon, as the infrastructure will take years to build.
“When you think about those things that should be teed up and ready to go, this is one where in my view there’s really no excuse for why we should see further delay,” Murkowski said. “This is something that’s been in the works that’s gone through so much process, across multiple administrations.”
This story has been updated with more information.