ConocoPhillips exploration well on the North Slope
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 Photography / ConocoPhillips Alaska)

Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, has weighed in on the side of con­ser­va­tion­ists as the Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion read­ies a deci­sion on Cono­coPhillips $6 bil­lion oil drilling project in Arc­tic Alaska.

Cantwell joined a let­ter — also signed by Ore­gon’s U.S. Sen­a­tors Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, but not any Wash­ing­ton col­leagues — oppos­ing the Wil­low Project.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Man­age­ment has rec­om­mend­ed scaled-back approval with three rather than five drilling platforms.

The poten­tial dev­as­ta­tion to Arc­tic ecosys­tems, from cli­mate dam­age, “is irre­versible and irre­spon­si­ble to future gen­er­a­tions,” said Cantwell. “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.”

Press­ing against the Wil­low Project are such groups as the Sier­ra Club and Ever­green Action, an envi­ron­men­tal action orga­ni­za­tion with roots in Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee’s brief pres­i­den­tial foray.

The Alas­ka con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion, North Slope native groups and labor have ral­lied to Wil­low, and met with Pres­i­dent Biden to make their case.

“Alaska’s del­e­ga­tion and North Slope peo­ple are speak­ing as loud­ly as we can about the impor­tance of the Wil­low Project: It’s time for D.C. to lis­ten,” said new­ly elect­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mary Peltola.

The Wil­low Project would be locat­ed in the Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve, which is a tract of fed­er­al land locat­ed to the west of Prud­hoe Bay.

It is pro­ject­ed to yield six hun­dred mil­lion bar­rels of oil over thir­ty years. It would send $17 bil­lion in rev­enue to fed­er­al, state, and region­al coffers.

The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion has report­ed­ly offered sweet­en­ers to envi­ron­men­tal­ists, such as a ban on off­shore drilling in Arc­tic Ocean waters.

Cantwell has cham­pi­oned con­ser­va­tion in the Last Fron­tier, and won impor­tant vic­to­ries of late. The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion has used the fed­er­al Clean Water Act to block a mas­sive open pit mine (the pro­posed Peb­ble Mine) that the min­ing lob­by want­ed to locate between two prime Bris­tol Bay salmon streams. It has put old growth forests in the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est off lim­its to logging.

Wil­low is a very big deal. It has been care­ful­ly designed to pre­serve per­mafrost and min­i­mize the “foot­print” on tun­dra and wet­lands. But it would gen­er­ate an esti­mat­ed 9.2 mil­lion met­ric tons of car­bon diox­ide a year.

Once more, as with the bat­tle over oil drilling in the Arc­tic Refuge, Cantwell is pit­ted against a some­time col­lab­o­ra­tor, Sen­a­tor Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska.

Wil­low is, in Murkowski’s words, “an envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound and job cre­at­ing project that must be approved.” It was approved dur­ing the Trump regime, but a fed­er­al judge deemed the envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies inadequate.

In oppo­si­tion, words from Sen. Mar­tin Hein­rich, D‑New Mex­i­co: “I would urge Pres­i­dent Biden to ask him­self what he thinks Amer­i­cans will val­ue more a cen­tu­ry from now: a few bar­rels of oil that are already long gone, or the pro­tec­tion of one of the world’s tru­ly great wildlife spectacles.”

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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