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ConocoPhillips’ Willow prospect advances with review effort by federal government

Aerial view of Tinmiaq 7, the first well drilled at ConocoPhillips’ Willow prospect during the 2018 exploration season. (Judy Patrick / ConocoPhillips)

The federal government announced Tuesday that it will launch the regulatory process and start taking public comments for a major oil discovery on Alaska's North Slope, in a statement that drew swift criticism from conservation groups.

The Bureau of Land Management said it will begin taking steps to conduct an environmental review of ConocoPhillips' Willow prospect in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, according to a notice in the Federal Register.

The 23-million-acre reserve, set aside by President Warren G. Harding nearly a century ago for its petroleum value, has been the subject of scant oil exploration compared to Prudhoe Bay and other large fields on state land to the east.

But a series of new discoveries within and around the reserve in northern Alaska has attracted new attention from the industry, particularly by the reserve's dominant leaseholder, ConocoPhillips, which has pushed quickly in recent years to crack open the region to long-term production.

ConocoPhillips has said Willow could produce up to 100,000 barrels of oil daily, based on an estimate the field contained more than 300 million barrels of recoverable oil. More recently, after further exploration, ConocoPhillips raised Willow's estimated resources to as much as 750 million barrels, but did not provide a new estimate of daily production.

At Willow, the company plans to develop a plant to process crude oil for delivery in pipelines, an airstrip, a gravel mine, up to 250 wells on five gravel sites called pads, and a temporary island to accept delivery barges traveling across the Beaufort Sea.

ConocoPhillips said in a statement Tuesday that it employs rigorous standards to protect the environment and minimize the impact of its operations.

"We have an excellent track record and long history of operating responsibly on the North Slope," the company said in a statement emailed by Natalie Lowman, a spokeswoman in Alaska.

BLM said that based on a May 10 request from the company, it is preparing an environmental impact statement master development plan for the project. The agency said in the announcement it will follow executive orders issued under President Donald Trump for "streamlining and improving" regulatory processes.

The language sparked alarm from conservation groups that BLM will rush the environmental review of a complex project in a sensitive area.

"It will scar the land, harm wildlife and worsen climate change," said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "We can't let Trump allow the oil industry to suck the life out of this amazing place."

Audubon Alaska said the "giant" project's proposed location southeast of Teshekpuk Lake wetlands could disturb one of the most important wildlife habitats in the Arctic.

"The Willow project raises a series of scientific concerns, including impacts to migrating caribou, anadromous fish like salmon, and nesting yellow-billed loons, especially when we consider these issues against a backdrop of climate change and cumulative impacts," said Ben Sullender, spatial ecologist for Audubon Alaska.

BLM said it's now accepting written comments on issues it should consider in the review, including potential impacts and project alternatives, until Sept. 6. The agency will take public comment at meetings in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Utqiaġvik, Anaktuvuk Pass, Atqasuk and Nuiqsut. The dates, times, and meeting sites will be announced through local news media and the BLM Alaska website.

Jim Hart, a spokesman with BLM Alaska, said the agency has received details about the project from ConocoPhillips' letter requesting the master development plan. The agency has received additional information about the project from ConocoPhillips and plans to publicize those details soon.

BLM will hold a second comment period lasting 45 days, as part of a draft environmental impact statement the agency will develop.

A master development plan can speed up future permitting requests for individual drilling permits, an advantage for a company hoping to avoid delays, said Hart.

"This is expected to result in a quicker and more efficient process for the approval of applications for permits to drill," the agency said in its public notice.

Comments can be submitted by email to BLM_AK_Willow_Comments@blm.gov. They can be sent by mail to Attn: Willow MDP/EIS; 222 W. Seventh Ave., Stop #13; Anchorage, AK 99513-7504.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said ConocoPhillips estimated that Willow held up to 1.1 billion barrels of oil. In fact, the company currently estimates the prospect contains up to 750 million barrels of oil. Two wells drilled last winter outside the Willow area made discoveries estimated to contain up to 350 million barrels of oil. Together, the company currently estimates Willow and its two other prospects hold up to 1.1 billion barrels of oil.)

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