Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Alaska delegation seeks Willow project decision

Groups from all sides are pressing President Joe Biden to make a decision on the Willow project, a prospective major North Slope oil development on federal land.

While conservation groups are pushing the federal government to deny permits for the $8 billion ConocoPhillips project, the Alaska Delegation has been pushing the other way.

In a joint news statement, Sens. Lisa Murkowksi and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Mary Peltola said they’ve met twice with senior Biden officials in an effort to move the project forward.

The administration, the delegation noted, committed to completing a final environmental impact statement by the end of January and a Record of Decision by the end of February, a critical part to wrapping up a National Environmental Protection Act process.

“During the meeting, we urged the Administration to select Alternative E, which is responsive to the Alaska District Court’s ruling, and reiterated that approval of a project that is not viable would be viewed as a denial,” the delegation stated. “We also underscored the strong support the Willow Project has among all Alaska stakeholder groups, including Alaska Native communities, as well as labor unions and building trades.”

The January-February timeline falls short of what the Alaska delegation called for in a Sept. 20 letter to the U.S. Interior Secretary. The delegation urged the Bureau of Land Management to complete the permitting process by the end of this year to meet the winter construction season.

The North Slope project, if approved, would be the first oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area west of Prudhoe Bay that was originally set aside by President Warren Harding in 1923 as a major oil source for the U.S. Navy.

The Willow project, according to ConocoPhillips, could produce up to 600 billion barrels over three decades, but conservation groups said it comes at the cost of releasing 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

ConocoPhillips Alaska President Erec Isaacson told Bloomberg this month that the oil developer will pull out if the federal government scales the project down to two drilling locations. Isaacson said a minimum of three sites are needed, or “it just wouldn’t be a viable project at that point.”

The oil project has been in regulatory limbo for years. ConocoPhillips obtained its first leases in 1999 and started the permitting process in 2018.

The Trump administration initially approved the plan in 2020, but a preliminary injunction upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2021 halted any initial work.

An Alaska federal judge issued an injunction in August 2021, adding another layer after issuing a written order stating the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred in approving the project.

Since then, advocates have pushed for the project to move ahead. In July 2022, the BLM issued a draft supplemental environmental impact statement.

The project has garnered support from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office, along with some Alaska Native and local government officials.

North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr., among other borough officials, have pushed for the project to be approved. Bower and the borough president Amaulik Edwardsen’s latest support was published in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.

Brower and Edwardsen cited BLM projections that the project could generate between $8 billion and $17 billion in revenue for the federal government, Alaska and North Slope Borough communities. On top of that, they noted that ConocoPhillips has feedback and concerns into the project and the BLM has weighed in as well.

Brower and Edwardsen wrote they were tired of “outside groups trying to turn this project” and all other gas and oil projects into a climate change poster child.

“This is more than a political oil debate for us, it’s about access to land we were promised many years ago,” they wrote. ‘Without projects like Willow and their economic crucial benefits, many of my neighbors would be forced to leave the lands they and their ancestors have inhabited for thousands of years.”

Others oppose it, including several local and national conservation organizations, along with Nuiqsut’s former, Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, have opposed the project.

Ahtuangaruak testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources in September about the potential dangers the Willow Project would cause for the region’s climate if approved. She noted the area around the village already sees the impacts of climate change, including changes in animal migration patterns.

“Willow would continue to encircle our community with oil and gas and would make the subsistence and health impacts that we are already experiencing seem minor in comparison to the impacts we will experience in the future,” Ahtuangaruak stated in her testimony. “We shouldn’t have to choose between putting food on our tables versus speaking out on a project that will harm our ability to continue hunting and fishing in our traditional areas.”

By:  Jack Barnwell
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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