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As Willow project decision nears, Alaska ponders ties to oil

Oil and gas drilling are a foundation of the state's economy, but it brings a cost as well

Oil pipelines stretch across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska.
Oil pipelines stretch across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska. (The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak sees what’s different. The permafrost is melting. The landscape is altered. It’s harder for younger people to pursue caribou as their elders did.

“You go out hunting and there are changes to our lands and waters,” Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut, a village of about 500 people on Alaska’s North Slope, said in a phone interview. “The animals are no longer in areas where your grandfather taught your husband to hunt and where he taught his son,” she said. “Now there’s a gravel mine related to the oil and gas development.”

Ahtuangaruak worries Nuiqsut, where people rely on subsistence hunting of migratory herds of caribou, could go hungry if ConocoPhillips gets approval to drill for oil on federal land west of town. That project, called Willow, could thwart caribou coming north during the spring and prevent them from birthing calves. And if the offspring don’t recognize, or imprint, on that area, she said Nuiqsut could lose the animals for good.

“We need these foods to survive,” said Ahtuangaruak, who opposes Willow. “It’s our cost, our families, our daily lives.”

Halfway into the Biden administration, the Interior Department is poised to approve Willow, perhaps as early as next month, green-lighting a project that would lock in decades’ worth of emissions if carried out to completion even as the White House pursues a target to halve domestic carbon emissions by the end of the decade and zero them out by 2050.

In its environmental analysis released Feb. 1, Interior recommended narrowing the project from five drilling sites to three, though the department said it has “substantial concerns” about Willow and the “preferred alternative.”

The department completed its analysis after a federal judge in Alaska threw out permits for Willow in 2021, ruling the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, divisions of Interior, had erred in approving the project.

After Interior issued its February statement, ConocoPhillips said it would begin building gravel roads, necessary for carrying heavy machinery and vehicles in the Arctic region, as soon as it gets the necessary approvals. Beyond approval from Interior, the company also needs approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Planning is currently in progress and mobilization could start as soon as February,” the company said. “Additional North Slope construction activities for Willow will occur throughout the summer and fall.”

The company began the permitting process in 2018, during the Trump administration, and said it would lead to about 2,500 construction and 300 long-term jobs.

It would bring in $8.7 billion in royalty payments and tax revenue to state, federal and local governments and produce roughly 180,000 barrels of oil daily at peak output, the company said.

“Willow really looms large in, I would say, the collective dreams of the industry right now,” Brett Watson, applied and natural resources economist at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, said in a phone interview. Alaska today produces around 500,000 barrels of oil per day, Watson said. “If you think about the ratio of the Willow project to current production, that’s fairly substantial.”

The economic fate of the state is firmly tied to the ups and downs of oil and gas. Alaska created a state wealth fund, from oil proceeds, in the 1970s, following the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which moves oil from the north to Valdez, in the state’s south, where it’s shipped to market.

“Economists like to say that Alaska’s economy is like a three-legged stool, meaning that about one-third of all of our economic activity comes from the oil and gas sector,” Watson said. The oil and gas industry is the main source of income on the North Slope, he said.

Historically, oil and gas have comprised about 80 percent of the revenue flowing to the state government, Watson said. While the oil output in the state is ebbing, Willow could blunt that trend.

Declining production

“If you look at a forecast without Willow, Alaska’s oil production is slated to continue to decline,” Watson said. “With Willow, Alaska’s oil production could be higher than it is today,” he said. “Our fate is really tied to this one industry, and the up and down cycles of that industry create wild swings in our state’s economy.”

The U.S. Navy discovered oil in the 1940s and 1950s in what is now called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a region about as big as Indiana and home to Willow. 

“This a remarkable development because it is going to be the largest development in NPR-A, the place where large quantities of oil were first discovered on the North Slope,” said Philip Wight, a professor of history and Arctic and northern studies at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

To the west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Willow and other active and potential oil sites would wrap around Nuiqsut. The explosive blasting to create gravel from a nearby mine can be felt in Nuiqsut, Ahtuangaruak said. 

“We have blasts that shake the village every day at 6 o’clock,” she said.

A draft of the environmental impact statement for Willow found oil and gas development has expanded into “highly used Nuiqsut subsistence use areas” since 2000.

“The project,” the draft reads, “would contribute to the cumulative effects of development on subsistence resources and activities because it would represent a net increase in the amount of land used for oil and gas and other development, in addition to a related increase in industrial activity, including air and ground traffic.” 

Locals feel hemmed in, it said. “Nuiqsut residents have reported feeling surrounded by infrastructure (as one resident put it, living in a ‘human corral’),” the authors said.

Approval of Willow would make it easier for other projects to be built to the west in the western Arctic of Alaska, said Jeremy Lieb, an attorney at Earthjustice, which has sued to block Willow.

“This is an area that is largely undeveloped,” Lieb said by phone. Adjacent oil fields in various states of development include West Willow, Harpoon and the leases owned by 88 Energy, an Australian company. “Each project makes the next project easier.”

This region is pancake-flat. Oil facilities, gravel paths on the tundra and “man camps” — housing for workers — dot the landscape, Lieb said. Against a desolate backdrop, humans make a stark contrast to their surroundings, he said. “It’s like some sort of moon base,” he said. 

Using a term of climate scientists to describe how much more fossil fuel can be burned before calamitous climate change kicks in, Lieb added, “There’s really not that much margin in the carbon budget for oil projects like this.”

Nuiqsut, the closest town to the Willow site and the only one within miles, sits on its own. To the north is Alpine, an unincorporated community the federal census doesn’t count. Prudhoe Bay, where a large oil find was discovered in the 1960s, is about 60 miles east. 

Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Iñupiat, said in a phone interview his organization, a nonprofit that represents cities and native corporations on the North Slope, supports Willow because it would bring money into the region.

Economics

“The biggest reason that we support the Willow project is for the economics,” Harcharek said. Whatever energy transition emerges, the region will need money to invest and plan ahead, he said. “We have an opportunity here to realize that funding locally and be able to kind of invest in ourselves, so to speak, rather than rely on outside sources.”

Harcharek said his group has no financial or personal connection to ConocoPhillips.

 “Our culture revolves around our subsistence ways,” he said. “Our different organizations on the North Slope worked very well with our industry partners, and if there was any sort of concern that our subsistence ways would be impacted in a negative way, we would not be in support of the project.”

Anti-Willow posters have been pasted up around the White House in recent weeks. Across town, the three lawmakers who represent Alaska in Congress support Willow.

Lobbying

ConocoPhillips nearly doubled the amount of money it spent lobbying the federal government last year, ratcheting up its spending to $8.69 million in 2022, an increase of about 96 percent from the roughly $4.44 million it spent in 2021, the first year of the Biden administration, lobbying records show.

The Houston-headquartered company lobbied against possible restrictions on exporting crude oil or refined petroleum products or the implementation of legislation known as “NOPEC” that would allow the Justice Department to file antitrust lawsuits against member states of OPEC, the bloc of oil-rich countries, records show.

Company lobbyists also pushed for Willow and on spending legislation, federal permitting proposals, EPA pollution standards, climate disclosures at the Securities and Exchange Commission and air quality standards for the Permian Basin, the oil patch that straddles New Mexico and Texas.

Kjersten Drager, a lobbyist for the company, worked on the Willow project last year and donated $2,500 to the campaign for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and $2,000 to Tara Sweeney, an Interior Department official during the Trump administration, who ran as a Republican for the state’s House seat before withdrawing, lobbying disclosures show. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, won that seat in November.

A ConocoPhillips spokesman, Dennis Nuss, declined to provide an on-the-record comment about why the company’s lobbying roughly doubled last year, instead sharing public statements supporting Willow.

The company casts a shadow in Alaska. It has its own terminal at the Anchorage airport.

Proponents of the project cite support from Congress, the administration, local native groups and labor organizations as reasons it should be approved.

Murkowski said Thursday the money from Willow would help the roughly 11,000 people who live in the region with health care, education and safety.

“It is with the sharing of these resources that the people of the north are able to have much of what we enjoy in other parts of America today,” Murkowski said. “They live in this region and they care what happens in their region.” 

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said Willow is “completely shovel-ready” and would support thousands of jobs.

“We have made this the No. 1 issue from the Alaska delegation ever since Joe Biden stepped into office,” Sullivan said. “I’ve personally raised this with the president,” he said. “If you want cooperation with the Alaska delegation, you gotta work with us.”

Said Peltola in an interview, “Willow specifically is really important to me because the labor groups and union members specifically asked me to support this.”

Murkowski met with company CEO Ryan Lance in June 2021 and discussed the Willow project. And in the confirmation hearing for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, held in 2021, Murkowski listed Willow, other Arctic oil projects and a federal road project as important to her.

“Defending these specific projects would be critically important,” Murkowski told Haaland at the time.

Scientists warn of tipping points in the Arctic that speed human-driven climate change, such as thawing permafrost, which releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, or melted sea ice that never freezes.

“The ground up there is changing so fast and shifting,” Bridget Psarianos, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm, said by phone. “Flying over it, it’s just basically one big wetland,” Psarianos said. “In the summertime, it looks a lot like Swiss cheese, because it’s just dotted with so many lakes.” 

It’s not always possible for oil companies to operate year-round, due to the frigid temperatures and often soggy terrain.

ConocoPhillips aims to work year-round. “Conoco has a plan to put chillers in the permafrost to try to keep the ground under their roads and pads frozen in the summer while they’re drilling for the oil that is causing the permafrost to melt,” Psarianos said. “It’s all very dystopian.”

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