In his annual address to the Alaska Legislature, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan called on the Legislature and ordinary Alaskans to speak in defense of the Willow project, a long-planned oil development awaiting federal permission on the North Slope.
“The battle is going to be ferocious over the next 30 days until the record is finalized,” he said.
Last week, the Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental impact statement declaring that the project could be built with three of five planned oil wells and still meet environmental standards.
The Department of Interior has 30 days to finalize the BLM decision, and Sullivan said he is worried that political pressure from environmental groups will cause the Biden administration to narrow the project to two wells. That would make the project uneconomic, effectively killing it, he said.
“We’re worried that they’re going to do this for political reasons,” he said.
To combat the pressure, Sullivan asked the Alaska Legislature to voice its support for the project as described in the BLM statement this month.
“We need you to call the White House. You’re all good politicians, use your connections. We need to make some noise for the betterment of our state and our country,” he said.
In 2017, the Legislature passed a resolution calling on Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. Shortly afterward, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, inserted language into an appropriations bill that required two lease sales in ANWR.
The first sale had poor results — a state-owned corporation holds the only remaining leases, which are in litigation — but Sullivan said the 2017 resolution was helpful in approving the sale in the first place.
“Please draft up another resolution, pass it, so we can show people in D.C. — by the way, certain congressmen are claiming Alaskans and Alaska Natives don’t want the Willow project — so we can show them and say, that’s not correct,” Sullivan said.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage and co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said she is already working with Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, on a draft resolution and expects that to be released by the end of the week.
The resolution could pass the Legislature next week, she said. Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, offered a similar timeline when asked about the issue.
Sullivan said Willow is an important barometer for future oil and gas development in Alaska.
“It’s hard to get big things off the ground here,” he said, and if the Willow project fails, it will discourage future efforts.
“If we can’t get out of our own way, it’s going to be a huge missed opportunity,” he said.
In planning since the late 1990s, Willow is the largest development yet in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a vast stretch of the North Slope west of Prudhoe Bay and south of Utqiagvik.
The trans-Alaska Pipeline System carries about 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day, and at peak production, Willow’s three well sites are expected to produce about 180,000 barrels per day.
Reaching that peak is expected to take several years, and more than 2,500 workers will be needed to construct the project, which includes a series of roads and supporting infrastructure.
Environmental groups have consistently opposed the project, which has the support of the state, Alaska’s congressional delegation, most North Slope officials and likely the Legislature.
The project was previously approved by the federal government in 2020, but a lawsuit overturned that approval, requiring a new two-year permitting process.
Sullivan said that if Willow is again approved next month, he expects another lawsuit is “undoubtedly going to happen very soon.”
When it does, he hopes the state will join in the defense. Alaska needs to capitalize on its opportunity as a resource state, Sullivan said.
“That’s why I’ve asked every Alaska legislator to help us on (Willow), not just in terms of the resolution, but the litigation that’s inevitably coming very soon,” he said.
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.