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Energy

Trump administration approves ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil project in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

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

The Trump administration on Tuesday approved ConocoPhillips' large oil project, called the Willow project, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The decision sets the stage for construction near a prized conservation area in a largely undeveloped region on the North Slope that has seen increased industry attention in recent years.

The federal government’s record of decision was signed Monday by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. It will allow up to three drill sites, a processing facility and gravel roads and pipelines.

Two more drill sites and additional roads and pipelines, also proposed by ConocoPhillips, can be considered later, the federal Bureau of Land Management said.

Conservation groups decried the proposal as a threat to the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a wetland complex in the 23-million-acre reserve that supports migratory birds and calving grounds for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

BLM said in a statement Tuesday that Willow could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil daily. Over 30 years, about 600 million barrels could be produced, helping offset dwindling oil production and state revenues in Alaska, the agency said.

Construction would produce more than 1,000 jobs and lead to more than 400 jobs during operations, BLM said.

“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,” Bernhardt said in a written statement.

Willow, as well as the Pikka oil project that company Oil Search is pursuing, are large new discoveries in a region west of Prudhoe Bay. The federal government set aside the petroleum reserve nearly a century ago for its energy potential, but did not hold lease sales there for many years.

Construction at Willow could begin next year assuming all regulatory approvals are granted, said Natalie Lowman, a spokeswoman with ConocoPhillips. Oil production would begin about five years later.

ConocoPhillips is reviewing the record of decision, a “key milestone” that allows planning to move ahead, the statement from Lowman said.

Kristen Miller, conservation director for the Alaska Wilderness League, said the administration’s decision is a dangerous rush toward development. Polar bears could also be threatened, groups said.

“Despite a national crisis that has drastically impacted Alaska’s rural villages and elevated health and food security concerns, the Trump administration is nonetheless forcing through a controversial proposal to greatly expand oil and gas drilling in our nation’s melting Arctic,” Miller said. “Administration officials saw an opportunity to check off another industry wish list box with the public’s attention diverted by coronavirus, and they took it.”

The federal government’s approval defers a decision on two other drill sites and related gravel roads at the request of ConocoPhillips, so the company can conduct additional outreach to affected communities, the agency said. Those drills sites may be built in the years to come, the agency said.

ConocoPhillips has said its development plans at Willow will likely be delayed if Ballot Measure 1 passes on Nov. 3. The measure would increase taxes on ConocoPhillips, as well as ExxonMobil and Hilcorp Alaska.

Robin Brena, chair of the Ballot Measure 1 group, has said the measure targets only the three largest producing units in Alaska, not smaller or undeveloped oil fields like Willow. He has said he does not believe development at Willow will be delayed in part because the project has enormous value for the oil company.

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