Teshekpuk Caribou grazing
Teshekpuk Caribou, Northeast National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. Photo by Bob Wick (BLM)

The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion will scale back but approve the pro­posed Wil­low Project on Alaska’s North Slope, the largest pend­ing oil and gas devel­op­ment in the Unit­ed States, accord­ing to reports pub­lished by The New York Times, Bloomberg, and oth­er news orga­ni­za­tions.

The devel­op­ment by Cono­coPhillips would be locat­ed west of the Prud­hoe Bay oil field, in the twen­ty-three mil­lion-acre Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve, a vast and large­ly wild swath of the nation’s forty-ninth state. At peak oper­a­tion, it is expect­ed to pro­duce 180,000 bar­rels of oil each day.

Willow project area
The area where the Wil­low drilling pads would be built in Alas­ka (Graph­ic by Alas­ka Pub­lic Media)

Cono­coPhillips had pro­posed five drilling pads at the site.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, in an envi­ron­men­tal review released in Feb­ru­ary, pro­posed a small­er “foot­print” of three drilling pads able to accom­mo­date two hun­dred and nine­teen wells. White House aides, seek­ing to mol­li­fy envi­ron­men­tal groups, have float­ed the idea of two drilling platforms.

As draft deci­sion doc­u­ments cir­cu­lat­ed Fri­day, White House press sec­re­tary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that “no final deci­sions have been made.”

Furi­ous lob­by­ing has con­tin­ued by both pro­po­nents and oppo­nents of a project that would be locat­ed in one of the most remote cor­ners of America.

Alaska's Mary Peltola and Lisa Murkowski
Alaska’s Mary Pel­to­la and Lisa Murkows­ki at an AFN event before the Novem­ber 2022 gen­er­al elec­tion (Cam­paign photo)

The Alas­ka con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion has mount­ed a full-court press for Wil­low, enlist­ing back­ing from orga­nized labor, may­ors of near­by Indige­nous vil­lages, and unan­i­mous res­o­lu­tions of sup­port from the Alas­ka Leg­is­la­ture and Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka Board of Regents. The del­e­ga­tion met recent­ly with Pres­i­dent Biden at the White House.

New Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mary Pel­to­la tweet­ed: “Encour­ag­ing news on Wil­low today – seems like the Admin­is­tra­tion is tak­ing Alaskans’ sup­port for this project seri­ous­ly. I don’t want to jinx any­thing but I hope the Admin­is­tra­tion stays the course and reap­proves this project. Alaskans are watching.”

Sen­a­tor Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska, has pressed for Wil­low, describ­ing the devel­op­ment as “metic­u­lous­ly planned, social­ly just and envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound.” She has pressed for three drilling sites, say­ing: “Wil­low is too impor­tant to Alaska’s future to set­tle for any­thing less than an eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable project.”

Three pads are “the min­i­mum for Wil­low to remain eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable,” Pel­to­la said last month.

Envi­ron­men­tal groups have cam­paigned against what the Sier­ra Club has described as “a cli­mate dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen.” A change.org peti­tion oppos­ing Wil­low had drawn 3.1 mil­lion sig­na­tures and an esti­mat­ed 1.1 mil­lion unique let­ters have descend­ed on the White House.

Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, a strate­gist behind recent pro-preser­va­tion deci­sions in Alas­ka, has warned of cli­mate con­se­quences to the Arc­tic that would be “irre­versible and irre­spon­si­ble to future gen­er­a­tions,” adding: “Oil com­pa­nies already have record prof­its and access to drilling rights on mil­lions of acres of pub­lic lands which they should be using to meet our cur­rent fos­sil fuel needs.”

As news orga­ni­za­tions pre­dict­ed approval of Wil­low, Sen­a­tor Jeff Merkley, D‑Oregon, tweet­ed on Fri­day: “It’s a com­plete betray­al of Biden’s promise not to allow more drilling and a com­plete cat­a­stro­phe to rein in cli­mate change.”

The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion has deliv­ered a suc­ces­sion of pro-envi­ron­ment deci­sions in Alas­ka. It has used the Clean Water Act to reject a mas­sive open pit mine pro­posed between two of Bris­tol Bay’s major salmon spawn­ing streams. It has blocked fur­ther oil leas­ing in the Arc­tic Refuge. And it has rein­stat­ed the Clin­ton era “Road­less Rule,” block­ing con­struc­tion of new roads into old growth forests of South­east Alaska’s vast Ton­gass Nation­al Forest.

“We’ve had deci­sion after deci­sion go against us and even this one – a social­ly just project locat­ed with­in a petro­le­um reserve – it’s per­ilous­ly close,” Murkows­ki said in a recent speech to the Alas­ka State Leg­is­la­ture in Juneau.

The Wil­low Project was approved dur­ing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. But a fed­er­al judge sent agen­cies back to the draw­ing board, find­ing analy­sis of envi­ron­men­tal impacts inad­e­quate and incom­plete. The lands around Cono­coPhillips’ pro­posed drilling sites com­prise major migra­to­ry bird habi­tats – cen­tered on Teshekpuk Lake — and are home to a major cari­bou herd, accord­ing to the BLM.

The Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, in scal­ing back drilling sites, reduced by forty per­cent the impact on polar bear habitat.

But Wil­low will have impacts. The BLM’s pre­ferred alter­na­tive would mean con­struc­tion of thir­ty miles of grav­el roads, 268 miles of indi­vid­ual pipelines, plus 431 miles of ice roads. The exist­ing Trans-Alas­ka Pipeline would be used to ship oil south across Alas­ka to the oil port in Valdez.

Cono­coPhillips had esti­mat­ed the Wil­low site con­tains six hun­dred mil­lion bar­rels of oil. The cost of the project is esti­mat­ed in the $6–8 bil­lion range.

It would cre­ate about 2,500 large­ly union con­struc­tion jobs, and gen­er­ate an esti­mat­ed $17 bil­lion in rev­enue to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, state of Alas­ka, and Alas­ka Native corporations.

It would, how­ev­er, yield 9.2 mil­lion met­ric tons of car­bon diox­ide emis­sions a year, at a time when the Arc­tic is warm­ing at a rate four times that of the rest of the plan­et. “I expect the unex­pect­ed and that our land will be com­plete­ly unpre­dictable, in many ways, unknown to us because it’s chang­ing so fast that our ani­mals and our peo­ple can­not adopt,” in words of Siqiniq Maupin, a native of the area and direc­tor of Sov­er­eign Inu­pi­at for a Liv­ing Arctic.

The basic ratio­nale for Wil­low: The Unit­ed States will need oil, even as it tran­si­tions out of fos­sil fuel dependence.

As the BLM not­ed in its lat­est review, we can pro­duce that oil domes­ti­cal­ly, or pur­chase it from coun­tries with far less rig­or­ous envi­ron­men­tal protection.

“We are decades away from a time that we would be beyond oil resources: The need is very very much still there,” Murkows­ki recent­ly argued.

If the Unit­ed States approves a big new oil project, how­ev­er, what mes­sage does it send to the rest of the world.

“The pol­lu­tion it would gen­er­ate will not only put Alas­ka natives and oth­er local com­mu­ni­ties at risk, it is incom­pat­i­ble with the ambi­tion we need to achieve a net zero future,” for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore argued on Friday.

The Wil­low Project deci­sion is, in a phrase made famous by Joe Biden, a big (exple­tive) deal.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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