BLM releases positive review for ConocoPhillips Willow project in NPR-A

Feb. 1, 2023
The Biden administration announced Feb. 1 its final environmental review and preferred development alternative for ConocoPhillips Inc.’s Willow oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) on Alaska’s North Slope.

The Biden administration announced Feb. 1 its final environmental review and preferred development alternative for ConocoPhillips Inc.’s Willow oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) on Alaska’s North Slope.

The supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) amounts to tentative approval of the project, with the proviso that a record of decision (ROD) still must be issued as the last formal step. An ROD can be issued 30 days after publication of the supplemental EIS, and the Alaska delegation to Congress said in December that the administration had committed to getting the ROD done in that time frame.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in announcing release of the review, said its preferred alternative supports development of three of the five proposed drill sites, removes one site from consideration, and defers consideration of another.

ConocoPhillips hailed the decision and said it was continuing to review it. The company has in the past estimated the project will produce 180,000 b/d of oil at its peak. In its Feb. 1 press release the company did not say whether the volume estimate would need to be reduced to reflect approval of three rather than five drill sites.

A company spokesman said peak rate should not be impacted if the fourth pad comes online later in the field life.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has had his own frustrations with regulatory and litigation delays for West Virginia natural gas development, issued a statement saying, “While this action is overdue, I am pleased to see the administration finally move forward with the Willow project.”

Manchin said expected production from Willow would amount to more than 500 million bbl over the project’s lifetime, and he indicated production would be 160,000 b/d.

Ready to start

ConocoPhillips said it “intends to immediately initiate gravel road construction once all necessary approvals are in place, and then proceed to a final investment decision. Planning is currently in progress and mobilization could start as soon as February.”

The company said additional North Slope construction activities for Willow will occur throughout the summer and fall.

“Concurrently, material fabrication will begin in US facilities and the pace of contracting and procurement will increase,” the company said.

The Willow project won Trump administration approval only to be blocked by a federal court in August 2021 in response to a lawsuit by environmental activists (OGJ Online, Aug. 19, 2021).

BLM said its review and preferred alternative address the flaws identified by the 2021 ruling by the US District Court for the District of Alaska.

“The preferred alternative reduces the proposed project’s footprint within the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a critical ecological area in the NPR-A that supports thousands of migratory birds and is a primary calving area and migration corridor for the Teshekpuk caribou herd,” BLM said. “It also reduces freshwater use for project activities as well as the overall length of infield pipelines, gravel and ice roads.”

White House visits

The bipartisan Alaska congressional delegation—Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola—met twice in 10 days in December with senior officials at the White House to prod the administration on the Willow project.

“We also underscored the strong support the Willow project has among all Alaska stakeholder groups, including Alaska Native communities, as well as labor unions and building trades,” the three lawmakers said in a joint release Dec. 21.

The primary native population on the North Slope is the Inupiat, and one of their organizations was quick to welcome the Feb. 1 announcement.

“There is widespread support across Alaska Native communities for this considerately designed development opportunity and the long-term economic stability it offers for the people of Alaska’s remote North Slope,” said Nagruk Harcharek, president of Voice of Arctic Inupiat, an organization created by Inupiat leadership.

Not everyone has offered support. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, issued a Feb. 1 statement saying the BLM decision was “a disaster” and that “it paves the way for even more oil and gas drilling in the area in the future.”

ConocoPhillips acquired the first Willow-areas leases in 1999 in the Bear Tooth unit in the northeastern part of the NPR-A. The company began the development permitting process in 2018 and saw a final EIS published in 2020.