Skip to content

Alaska oil project approved as protection sought for other areas

OK for Willow project includes new limits to appease environmentalists

Oil pipelines stretch across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska, where ConocoPhillips operates another oil field.
Oil pipelines stretch across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska, where ConocoPhillips operates another oil field. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Interior Department on Monday approved the operation of a massive oil and gas facility on Alaska’s North Slope, a ConocoPhillips project called Willow supported by the state’s congressional delegation but opposed by environmental groups.

President Joe Biden will move to protect about 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas extraction, and Interior will limit drilling in federal land in Alaska through a separate rule, the department said in a statement announcing the Willow approval.

In its decision, Interior approved three of the five drill site pads that ConocoPhillips originally sought.

That total matches the number Interior recommended in its environmental analysis released in February.

Approval of the project comes following years of pressure from Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to secure federal backing, and public campaigning against the project by environmental groups in Alaska and the continental United States.

[As Willow project decision nears, Alaska ponders ties to oil]

Murkowski said during the confirmation hearing of Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary, that Willow was of “critical” importance.

The only Democrat in the three-member Alaska delegation, Rep. Mary Peltola, has supported the project too, citing jobs tied to its construction.

A significant player in the Alaskan economy, ConocoPhillips, which has its own terminal in the Anchorage airport, spent $8.69 million in federal lobbying efforts last year, as the administration was considering Willow, nearly doubling its spending from 2021, when it spent $4.44 million.

Interior began reevaluating the project after a federal judge in Alaska threw out permits for Willow in 2021, holding that the Trump administration had committed errors in its environmental assessment. 

Mixed reaction

“We finally did it, Willow is finally reapproved, and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” Murkowski said in a statement Monday. “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.”

Through a spokesman, Sullivan said he welcomed the Willow decision but took umbrage at the other Alaska-related decisions the administration issued with it. “The fight to unleash American and Alaskan energy is far from over,” Sullivan said. “The fact that this Willow ROD comes with the announcement of future legally-dubious resource development restrictions on Alaska lands and waters is infuriating and demonstrates that the Biden Administration’s unprecedented lock-up of our state will continue,” Sullivan said, using the abbreviation for “record of decision,” a document that marks the approval of a project.

“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,” Peltola said in a written statement. “We need to build up our schools, our housing stock, our rural Internet and electric grids, and more, in order to make this a truly 21st-century economy.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,  cheered the approval, calling it a “long-awaited and critical step towards shoring up American energy security.”

“Following a lengthy and rigorous review process and input from stakeholders and native Alaskans, President Biden kept his promise to American workers,” said Mark McManus, general president of the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters. “We look forward to continuing our important work powering this nation and breaking ground on this historic project that will create family-sustaining jobs and investment in North Slope communities.”

Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, also thanked the administration for approving the project. 

A White House spokesman, Abdullah Hasan, did not respond to questions about why the project was approved.

Oil production in Alaska has steadily shrunk since its heyday in the 1980s, a prospect supporters of Willow say the project would help reverse.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and House Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee said the decision ran roughshod over input from Nuiqsut, the closest and only significant population center by Willow. The mayor there told CQ Roll Call in an interview last month that most people in her town, about 500 people, oppose the project.

“While we acknowledge that the administration also just announced that it is conserving new public lands and waters in the Arctic, split decisions in the face of the climate crisis are not good enough,”  the members, including Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, Jared Huffman of California and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, wrote. “The only acceptable Willow project is no Willow project.”

Absent successful legal challenges, Willow will operate in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a portion of federal land in the state’s North Slope about as big as Indiana. The NPR-A, in the state’s northwest, is largely undeveloped and pristine Arctic territory dotted by native villages.

New protections

The administration said it would write a new regulation to protect more than 13 million acres of the reserve, which is about 23 million acres.

Separately, Biden will designate about 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean near the reserve “as indefinitely off limits for future oil and gas leasing,” Interior said. Such a designation would be an expansion of a decision by former President Barack Obama to withdraw portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas from drilling.

“The withdrawal will ensure this important habitat for whales, seals, polar bears, as well as for subsistence purposes, will be protected in perpetuity from extractive development,” Interior said.

The Arctic is warming faster than any region on Earth. ConocoPhillips has planned to use devices that keep the ground frozen to prevent its equipment from sinking into the thawing permafrost.

As part of the announcement Monday, Interior said ConocoPhillips would give up about 68,000 acres of existing leases in the NPR-A, including about 60,000 acres near Teshekpuk Lake, an area critical to the migration and calving of caribou.

In an apparent reference to looming blowback from environmental groups, Interior’s statement approving Willow contained this headline: “Interior Department Substantially Reduces Scope of Willow Project.”

Recent Stories

Strange things are afoot at the Capitol

Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024

Getting down on the Senate floor — Congressional Hits and Misses

US-China tech race will determine values that shape the future

What’s at stake in Texas runoff elections on Tuesday

Democrats decry ‘very, very harmful’ riders in Legislative Branch bill