The Biden Administration is leaning toward approval of an Alaska oil-drilling project, located west of Prudhoe Bay, that has been described by its developer ConocoPhillips as “the next great Alaskan (oil) hub.” The Willow oilfield would produce 180,000 barrels a day at peak production.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, overseer of the vast National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska’s North Slope, issued a final environmental impact statement this week. Its “preferred alternative” is a slightly scaled back development, accommodating three drilling platforms and 131 wells. It would still leave an imprint of 489 acres of gravel fill, 89 miles of pipelines, an airstrip and 400 miles of ice roads.
The Biden Administration has 30 days to act on the EIS, and confronts Joe Biden with words he might have to eat. Campaigning three years ago in the New Hampshire Primary, Biden courted environmentalists, saying: “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period.” The administration has already moved to halt oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, east of Prudhoe Bay.
The fate of ConocoPhillips’ Willow project represents a Nixon-goes-to-China moment for the 46th president. Supporters look to an $8-10 billion project, with $1 billion in property tax revenue to the North Slope Borough. “Thousands of good union jobs – and immense benefits that will be felt across Alaska and the nation – will hang in the balance until a final decision has been issued,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a statement greeting the EIS.
Alaska has a new Democratic member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who is urging the Biden Administration “to move forward with the final approval of the project,” saying it has “earned a social license from the region and the state.”
Environmental groups, a bulwark of administration support, fervently oppose the Willow project. They point out that Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of America, and that melting permafrost is unleashing carbon and methane into the atmosphere. “Drunken forests” atop melt are now a feature of central and northern Alaska.
“This would be the largest single oil drilling project proposed anywhere in the U.S. and it is drastically out of step with the Biden Administration’s goals to slash climate pollution and transition to clean energy,” said Jeremy Lieb, an attorney with Earthjustice.
The U.S. Interior Department, parent agency of the Bureau of Land Management, indicated that the EIS may not be the final word, saying: “The Department has substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final EIS, including direct and indirect greenhouse emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska native subsistence.”
ConocoPhillips is doing well, with profits of $18.7 billion in 2022 and $4.53 billion in the last quarter of the year. With financial gains, however, have come pains. An uncontrolled natural gas leak last March, out of existing operations next to the Willow site, sent 7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas into the atmosphere over a five-day period – equivalent to carbon emissions from 3,000 cars. Its cause: Injection of drilling fluids had thawed permafrost to the depth of 1,000 feet.
The big oil development would be located near Teshekpuk Lake, the largest body of water on the North Slope and a key destination for migrating birds. Its environs are also calving grounds and migration route for estimated 80,000 animals of the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd.
Residents of the nearby Inupiat village of Nuiqsut smelled gas fumes and experienced trouble breathing after ConocoPhillips’ gas leak. They worry about the Willow project’s impact on its subsistence hunting and fishing, and feel ignored by a far-off federal agency. In a scathing letter sent to the Interior Department last week, the villagers said:
“We speak of the significance of our culture and traditions, and the BLM schedules hearings during whaling. We emphasize the importance of our life, health and safety, and we watch as ConocoPhillips employees are evacuated . . . BLM cannot successfully build trust with our community by dismissively stating that the chances of a gas blowout ‘would be very low’ and that ‘there is no cause for concern.’”
How much oil would the ConocoPhillips extract from its Willow project over its 30-year lifespan? The BLM estimates 576 to 614 million barrels, while ConocoPhillips has estimated as many as 3 billion. At the same time, however, the project would emit 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to 68 coal-burning power plants.
Willow has generated intense, close-quarters lobbying conflict. A prominent Seattle conservationist, Zumiez co-founder Tom Campion, recently dined in a group of greens with President Biden. Campion devoted his “face time” to opposing Willow.
An environmental group with ties to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Evergreen Action, is fighting the project, arguing: “Big Oil is cashing in at the expense of our climate, communities, and public lands.” Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to argue: “There is no reason they have to go into this area. It’s about wanting to.”
The Biden Administration has sided with environmentalists on key Alaska decisions. It has reimposed the Roadless Rule to block further logging of old growth trees in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. This week, it invoked the Clean Water Act to block a half-mile-wide open pit mine proposed between two of Bristol Bay’s major salmon spawning streams.
Willow would be a major domestic source of oil and gas, at a time when production at Prudhoe Bay is declining and foreign oil sources are subject to disruption. But President Biden has pledged to cut in half 2005-level dependence on carbon fuels by 2030.
Sen. Murkowski is lobbying the White House and an influential voice for Willow. She is one Republican senator who has backed such administration programs as the Inflation Relief Act and the Infrastructure package. “Willow is environmentally just, meticulously planned, and will bring significant economic, fiscal and security benefits with truly minimal environmental impacts,” she has argued.
The Trump Administration tried in 2019 to rush through approval of the Willow project. A federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management failed in its EIS to evaluate significant impacts. The BLM went back to the drawing boards, trimmed the size of Willow, but left a project that ConocoPhillips can “live with.”
“Willow will produce much needed domestic energy while generating substantial public benefits,” in words of ConocoPhillips’ Alaska operations director Eric Isaacson.
But at what cost to the planet? The buck stops with Joe Biden.