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Trump administration paves way for large drilling project in Alaska Arctic petroleum reserve

The northeast section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. (Bureau of Land Management photo)

The Bureau of Land Management on Thursday took a step toward development of the Willow oil prospect in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a large ConocoPhillips effort that could help revive Alaska’s sagging economic fortunes, though critics say it endangers polar bears and the climate.

The agency, releasing the final environmental review of the project, said the development could produce more than 160,000 barrels of oil daily over 30 years, helping offset dwindling oil production and state revenues in Alaska. Construction would produce more than 1,000 jobs, and lead to more than 400 jobs when it begins operating.

ConocoPhillips has proposed starting construction early next year, with first oil anticipated in 2025, the analysis says.

“This project would provide more access to valuable resources in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska,” said Chad Padgett, Alaska director for the agency. “It provides for more throughput in the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, ultimately providing for more jobs for Alaskans and creating more revenue for the State.”

The oil discovery, on the western edge of Alaska’s North Slope oil fields, has helped revive interest in the state’s oil patch, alongside the major Pikka prospect pursued by Oil Search.

The agency said it prefers the development proposal submitted by the Houston, Texas-based oil company, as opposed to other alternatives that were analyzed, including no development.

The report’s release opens the door for the Trump administration to approve and select a final proposal after 30 days.

ConocoPhillips said it looks forward to regulatory approval.

“This is the critical part in the process to permit and construct the Willow project,” said an emailed statement from Natalie Lowman, a ConocoPhillips spokeswoman. “In response to public involvement during earlier steps in the permitting process, we made changes that improve the overall project, most notably to the transportation of processing facility modules.”

The development plan calls for the development of up to five drill sites, two airstrips, 385 miles of pipeline and 260 miles of resupply ice roads during operations.

Plans also include construction of seven bridges, 37 miles of gravel road and a processing facility to prepare the oil for pipeline shipment, according to the report. Accommodations would be made for subsistence hunting and fishing for people in the nearby village of Nuiqsut and others, such as boat ramps along the Colville River.

The project over its lifetime could produce $2.1 billion in state tax income, plus $5.3 billion in royalties, split between the federal government and Alaska. The state royalties, under federal law, are reserved for a program that pays for essential public services, with local communities affected by the development prioritized for the funding.

Defenders of Wildlife said the agency is taking an “unconscionable” action with a project that could put polar bears, caribou and valuable migratory birds at risk in the 23 million-acre reserve, including threatened spectacled eiders.

“This huge project, together with other industrial development in critical polar bear habitat across the Arctic, poses a significant threat to imperiled Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears and their critical habitat, in addition to other wildlife,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for the conservation group.

“It also represents a major expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Arctic, despite the urgent need to ramp down our carbon emissions,” she said in a statement from the group.

The move is the latest by the Trump administration that potentially ushers in new resource development in Alaska.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month released a final environmental report for the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine last month, setting the stage for a key federal permitting decision on that project in the coming weeks.

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