US Interior Department approves Willow oil project in Alaska

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

A BLM map showing the land grant.
Image: Bureau of Land Management.

The US Department of the Interior approved ConocoPhillips' Willow oil drill proposal in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska (NPR–A) on March 13.

The Department revoked leases of 68,000 acres (275 square kilometers) of land within the Bear Tooth Unit, in the northeast NPR–A, and granted three of ConocoPhillips' requested five drill sites.

According to the Department's record of decision, the approved version of the plan "requires the fewest ice roads, fewest total miles of infield pipelines, least water use, fewest vehicle trips, fewest fixed-wing aircraft trips, fewest helicopter trips, and fewest acres of screeding."

US Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, tweeted the same day: "I'm so relieved that an economically viable Willow Project is being reapproved. What a huge and needed victory for all Alaska."

According to a January Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) published by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a Department of the Interior agency, the project would: destroy approximately 532 acres (2 km²) of wetlands; use approximately 1.5 billion gallons (5.7 billion liters) of freshwater; and emit approximately 613 trillion pounds (278,036 metric megatons) of gross carbon dioxide equivalent over its 30-year planned duration.

An oil pipeline in the interior of Alaska.
Image: Gillfoto.

Development of the master plan for the project began in 2018.

The BLM released its EIS on August 15, 2020; Audubon Alaska and several other indigenous and conservation organizations stated in a joint press release the same day: "Rather than listening to local communities and taking the necessary time to produce an adequate analysis, the [then-president Donald] Trump Administration is rushing ahead to meet ConocoPhillips' timeline—driven by their desire to have rubber-stamped permits in hand before a potential administration change."

The Department of the Interior released a Record of Decision on October 26, 2020 authorizing up to three drill sites as well as supporting infrastructure such as processing and support facilities, gravel access roads, and pipelines.

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said then: "This decision will make a significant contribution to keeping oil flowing down the 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline decades into the future while delivering federal and state revenue as well as important impact assistance to the affected native communities."

On February 13, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a temporary injunction preventing ConocoPhillips from blasting, building roads, and gravel mining for the Willow project.

On August 18, 2021, the US District Court in Anchorage reversed the August 2020 EIS, finding it did not analyze foreign greenhouse gas emissions, include alternative proposals not subscribing to the conclusion that leases afforded the right to extract "all possible" oil and gas from each lease tract, and failed to properly consider the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act (NPRPA)'s requirement to give "maximum protection" to 'surface values' in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area (TLSA).

Biden on March 1.
Image: Maryland GovPics.

In January 2021, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order that paused "new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters", a campaign promise of his. In June 2021, US District Judge Terry A. Doughty granted a preliminary injunction blocking the administration's pause; last August, Doughty made the injunction permanent, stating the administration lacked "the authority to implement a Stop of lease sales."

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) required the US Department of Interior to lease the lesser of 60 million acres (240,000 km²) offshore and 2 million acres (8,100 km²) of federal lands each year for oil and gas development and the amount requisitioned by industry.

The Willow project was supported by a group of Alaska Native organizations and all three members of Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation, who argued it is economically critical for their communities. US Senator Dan Sullivan, also an Alaska Republican, said the project would be "one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in our state's history."

On February 20, the Alaska House of Representatives passed House Joint Resolution 6 by 36–0, expressing support for the project.

However, Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative Mike Scott said: "The Willow project would have a devastating effect on public lands and our climate, and approving it after passing the largest climate bill in history would be a giant step in reverse."