🇺🇸 Alaska’s DC reps lobby Biden to approve Willow oil and gas project

By James Brooks, Alaska Beacon - March 6, 2023

The Bureau of Land Management is expected to deliver a final record of decision for the Willow project as early as today

An aerial view of one of the exploration pads and wells that ConocoPhillips drilled during the 2018 exploration season at its Willow prospect (📸: Judy Patrick / ConocoPhillips)

By James Brooks, Alaska Beacon

ALASKA’S CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION met for an hour with President Joe Biden late Thursday, making what they said will be one of the final pitches in favour of the Willow oil project on the North Slope.

If the project is approved by the Interior Department — an act that could come as early as this week — ConocoPhillips Alaska would have the go-ahead to build Alaska’s largest new oil and gas development in decades.

“There’s campaigns that will be going on right up until the end, but I think it’s pretty clear that the White House intends to make a decision on this in the very near term here, I would say definitely in the next week,” said Lisa Murkowski, a Republican representing Alaska in the Senate.

While the final word on the project will formally come from the Interior Department, Dan Sullivan, a Republican who is the state’s other senator, said there’s no doubt that Mr Biden himself will be making the decision.

“It’s clear that this is a decision being made by the president of the United States and the White House,” he said.

A caribou grazes near facilities being used by ConocoPhillips in the area were it is seeking to be able to drill for oil and gas (📸: ConocoPhillips)

Mr Sullivan, Ms Murkowski and Mary Peltola, a Democrat who is the state’s sole member of the House of Representatives, all participated in the meeting, conducting what the two senators said was a “divide and conquer” approach, with Mr Sullivan offering national security arguments in favour of the project, Ms Murkowski offering that the state’s economic security was at stake, and Ms Peltola commenting on the broad local and state support for the project.

All three said it was impossible to tell how well their pitch went.

“I will say they were primarily in listening mode, and we presented what to me was an overwhelmingly strong case,” Mr Sullivan said.

The delegation presented its case alone, and the president was accompanied by a handful of top aides.

“These are negotiators at the top level, they are experienced poker faces,” Ms Peltola said.

The Bureau of Land Management indicated last month that it would allow ConocoPhillips to construct three drilling sites in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, with a possible fourth site in the future.

If constructed as planned, the project would produce about 180,000 barrels of oil per day, generating billions of dollars in economic impact payments to the North Slope’s local governments. The state of Alaska is expected to receive between $5 billion (€4.7 billion) and $9 billion in tax revenue over the lifetime of the project.

“The State of Alaska needs an economically viable project out of the National Petroleum Reserve. And we think this is the project,” Ms Murkowski said.

“We’re not in a healthy place right now,” she said. “We’ve got net out-migration, we have the lowest GDP growth, we have high unemployment numbers and have been the slowest to recover from the pandemic.”

The project is expected to create 2,500 construction jobs and hundreds more in the long run, according to estimates provided by ConocoPhillips.

In the week preceding the meeting, a constellation of Alaskans, including state legislators, traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby in favor of the project. Mr Sullivan presented Mr Biden with a copy of a unanimous, bipartisan resolution from the Alaska Legislature backing Willow.

(🗺️: ConocoPhillips)

Opponents say the project’s biggest drawback is its impact on the environment. Burning the oil produced by Willow would create 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, estimates indicate, contributing to global climate change. That’s caused national environmental groups to oppose the project.

The City of Nuiqsut and the Native Village of Nuiqsut, representing some local residents, also have urged the federal government to reject the project. A rally against the project took place Friday in front of the White House.

But trade unions, most local and state government officials, and industry groups are backing the project and in Alaska, supporters appear to significantly outnumber detractors.

“Alaskans are speaking largely with one voice. Yes, there are outliers, there are people who are not in agreement, but the majority, the vast majority, are supportive,” Ms Peltola said.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said that addressing climate change is a top priority, and a leaked analysis published Friday by Fox News showed that environmental concerns caused the administration to seek higher royalty fees during a recent oil and gas lease sale in Cook Inlet.

Drillers have repeatedly shown little interest in federal lease sales there, and the new sale saw only one bidder.

The worry with Willow, Mr Sullivan said, is that in order to satisfy environmentalists, Mr Biden will approve only two drill sites. ConocoPhillips has said that a limited approval would make the project uneconomic, halting it.

Mr Sullivan said the federal government’s own analysis concluded that Willow oil would account for 0.15% of national carbon emissions based on 2019 figures and that a “market substitution analysis” performed by the Bureau of Land Management showed that if Willow was not developed and imported oil were used instead, there would be a greater effect on global climate because the oil would likely come from places with poor environmental standards.

Mr Sullivan said he presented Mr Biden with a list of 45 executive actions limiting development in Alaska and “respectfully but forcefully” told the president that blocking Willow “would be a continuation of what I believe is an unprecedented number of actions by your administration”.

The Bureau of Land Management is expected to deliver a final record of decision for the Willow project as early as today.

Ms Peltola said she’s not prepared to guess how the president will decide.

“I do not like making predictions. This is the point where I feel I’ve made my best effort, and now it’s God’s will,” she said.


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This article has been fact-checked by Arctic Business Journal and Polar Research and Policy Initiative, with the support of the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

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