The Great Willow Project Saga: Cover Story

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March 13th, 2023 marked the Biden Administration’s final approval of the Willow Project. Mired in controversy, millions sent letters of protest and signed online petitions to fight the approval. And still, it came. Some may criticize this sudden about-face from an administration that has been more in line with a “green” philosophy, and others may praise the easing of negative pressure on oil and gas projects. 

In any case, with the approval, we just may be ushering in a new era of energy transition that even President Biden has the foresight to deem necessary. 

What is the Willow Project?

The Willow Project is an oil exploration and drilling venture located in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska’s (NPR-A) North Slope, which is on property owned by the federal government. The project itself is owned and operated by Houston-based ConocoPhillips, which holds long-term oil and gas leases in the region and has been in the planning/approval stages for decades. 

This particular shale play is projected to produce upwards of 180,000 barrels of oil per day, reports ConocoPhillips, who also estimates delivering between $8 billion to $17 billion in new revenue for the federal government and the state of Alaska.

Since construction shovels have been held back for so long, the new venture will likely take years to materialize as the necessary infrastructure is put in place. Still, ConocoPhillips has prepared for this moment by having key contractors virtually on stand-by and now “expects to immediately initiate gravel road construction activities”, per a company statement. 

However, all of this may be completely moot as environmental groups have swiftly sought legal recourse, likely in the form of injunctions, which would delay the project even further. Even so, an exciting race between ConocoPhillips contractors, environmental groups, and the Alaska winter is underway.  

Why is the Willow Project So Controversial?

The Willow Project was initially approved by President Trump back in 2020, but a federal judge later pulled the plug due to environmental concerns. ConocoPhillips was set to construct five drill pads (eventually lowered to three), as well as necessary infrastructure like roads, pipelines, and processing facilities. 

ConocoPhillips contractors need the winter to work on the ice roads crucial for logistics in the demanding climate. In Alaska, the winter season generally runs until April, says the National Park Service. That doesn’t leave much time to put shovels in the ground.

If environmental groups are successful in obtaining an injunction, they will have a court order prohibiting ConocoPhillips from beginning or continuing their construction activities. Such a delay could add another year to the long wait for Willow to begin.

The Willow Project has indeed been the subject of much controversy for years now, with environmental groups and some indigenous communities vociferously opposed to the project. Environmental groups argue that the project would harm the environment and that it would contribute to climate change. Indigenous communities are concerned about the impact of the project on their health, well-being, and the local environment. 

A Change.org petition challenging the administration’s approval of the Willow Project has to date garnered upwards of 5,000,000 signatures.

The Willow Project has also been the subject of legal challenges. In 2021, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska ruled that the Trump Administration’s environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was lacking and pulled the project’s permits. 

Two years later, on March 12th, 2023, the Biden administration announced limiting future industrial development in the NPR-A. The next day, on March 13, 2023, the Biden administration’s Interior Department issued a press release announcing their approval of the Willow Project in the NPR-A through a Record of Decision. The statement includes several caveats demonstrating how the project will be performed in a more environmentally responsible manner. 

Even so, days after the approval, a coalition of environmental groups filed different lawsuits against the Biden administration challenging the action. 

Friends of the Earth, Center for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace are all listed as plaintiffs in Alaska federal case number 20-308, Center for Biological Diversity et al v. Bureau of Land Management et al. 

These groups are alleging the U.S. Interior Department failed to adequately address all of the environmental concerns regarding emissions, nor did the Department of Fish and Wildlife provide adequate mitigation for the potential impact on wildlife.

How the Interior Department Frames the Decision

The Interior Department’s March 13 press release attempts to provide as little positivity to the project’s approval as possible, even while highlighting environmental and societal benefits. Even the title seems to begrudgingly accept the Department’s own decision—

Interior Department Substantially Reduces Scope of Willow Project

Drill Pads Reduced by 40%; ConocoPhillips to Relinquish Rights to 68,000 Acres of Existing Leases

Bear in mind, this release is announcing the project’s approval. “The Department is substantially reducing the size of the project by denying two of the five drill sites proposed,” the DOI release starts. “[ConocoPhillips] will also relinquish rights to approximately 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the NPR-A.” 

The DOI concludes their scaled-back version of the Willow Creek approval “reduces potential impacts to caribou migration and subsistence users”. This is accomplished by creating a buffer between the oil and gas project and the calving grounds and migratory routes for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, which the DOI reports as “an important subsistence resource for nearby Alaska Native communities.” 

In a study cited by the Audubon Society of Alaska, the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd and the Central Arctic Herd were compared for their seasonal proximity to oil and gas infrastructure. The environmental study found some herds moved and some stayed in close proximity to the new infrastructure; therefore, they state “it’s impossible to say for certain whether the Central Arctic Herd shifted because of oil and gas infrastructure.” 

Not knowing the consequences of a particular action make it hard to mitigate against, and yet, the DOI reports with certainty that their reductions will ensure less impact on the caribou herds. In sum and substance, the DOI is making conclusions despite the absence of conclusive studies with which to justify such a route is even beneficial.

Still, justify their position they did. The DOI stated that the Biden administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was the government entity put in charge of addressing the environmental shortcomings cited by the Alaska federal judge who initially pulled the project. 

In February 2023, the BLM published its final environmental impact statement which identified the preferred alternative for the project and called for the removal of only one of the five proposed drill pads, per the DOI March 13 press release. The DOI’s Record of Decision, therefore, ignored the BLM’s recommendation and proceeded with removing two of the proposed drill pads from the Willow Project Master Plan.

The BLM consulted with the Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the North Slope Borough, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a slew of other internal and external stakeholders as mandated by NEPA. Interestingly, several of these parties are named as defendants in the federal suit brought by the various environmental groups. 

After justifying their course of action, i.e. approving Willow Creek, the author of the Department of the Interior press release ties in this decision with the Biden administration’s clear stance on “clean energy manufacturing” (in case there was confusion over them approving an oil and gas exploration and drilling project in Alaska). “The Biden-Harris administration continues to deliver on the most aggressive climate agenda in American history” as they seek “climate resilience and environmental justice.”  

Wanting to define what environmental justice looks like, we can reach back to Biden’s colossal list of priorities presented at this year’s COP27. Part of the President’s Inflation Reduction Act was also launching a “Climate Gender Equity Fund”. The initiative, according to the U.S. Department of State, exists to address “the disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis on women and girls.” To that end, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is pledging more than $6 million to fund “gender-equitable climate action.” 

While oil exploration and drilling in Alaska and climate/gender equity may seem to be a bit of a hodgepodge, they and thousands of other initiatives are all included in Biden’s long list of “priorities” over his remaining time in office.

ConocoPhillips Claps Back 

ConocoPhillips also had a chance to clap back at detractors, although the tone of their press release certainly turned down the negativity. “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security, all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities,” CEO Ryan Lance said in a statement posted to the corporate site.

The release goes on to say, “After nearly five years of rigorous regulatory and environmental review, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process is complete. Willow is designed to support and coexist with subsistence activities with many mitigation measures built into the project design.” 

Willow also “has the potential to create over 2,500 construction jobs and approximately 300 long-term jobs”, while also providing other ancillary economic benefits to 10,000 permanent residents who call the North Slope Borough Communities home. 

Pros and Cons of the Willow Project

Seeing both sides of the argument is key to breaking the endless tit for tat political gridlock, which has been the modus operandi in Washington for some time. During CERAWeek 2023, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said of the Willow Project, “I support it. It’s a viable project” and that it’s important to produce “security for our nation and a return on investment.” 

In a fiery Senate speech, Republican Dan Sullivan of Alaska criticized the environmental groups opposing Willow Project for acting as “eco-colonialists” and subverting the voice and interests of the Alaska native people. Senator Sullivan cited the “bipartisan support of the Alaska Legislature and the overwhelming support of Alaska Native communities and labor unions” and argued that “the Willow Project is exactly the kind of project President Biden and his team should support because it aligns so strongly with many of the stated priorities of the Biden administration.”

And yet, any further delay or interference may leave the project economically unviable for ConocoPhillips. This is why a simple cost-benefit analysis may be all it takes to reach your conclusions. 

Breezing through pros and cons, we’re left with the following:

  1. Jobs and economic benefits. The project will necessitate thousands of jobs, many of which will depend on drawing from the local labor force. This can create hundreds of direct and ancillary positions, as well as create a boost for the local economy. The project is also expected to bring in billions in tax revenue for the state and federal governments.
  2. Energy security. The project would help to increase Alaska and the United States’ energy security by utilizing an untapped source of oil and gas and help replenish our dangerously depleted Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
  3. Environmental benefits. Both sides of the argument are saying the Willow Project is set to be conducted in an environmentally responsible manner, using state-of-the-art technology to minimize its impact on the environment. 
  4. Improved infrastructure. The project would involve the construction of new roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure, which would improve access to the area, which could benefit the local and national economies.
  5. Support for indigenous communities. Willow Project would provide economic support and cultural-sensitivity for indigenous communities in the area. ConocoPhillips and the federal government have actively sought these communities’ ongoing participation in the initial phases of the project. The project also promised to “coexist with subsistence activities” to reduce cultural impact.

However, it is important to note that the Willow Project also has the potential to deliver a few negative impacts, including:

  1. Environmental damage. The project involves the construction of roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure, through an absolutely pristine wildlife habitat. Any form of construction is going to damage/disrupt local flora and fauna. 
  2. Air and water pollution. While it may be minimal, the project would also generate air and water pollution. A remote drilling facility needs a lot of resources to be built and operate in a state as harsh as Alaska. Diesel fuel, chemicals, wastewater, trash, and other contaminants pose environmental risks if not properly disposed of.

The Willow Project is undoubtedly a complex issue with both positive and negative implications. At least with decades of scrutiny, the project has mountains of research from which positive and negative impacts can be studied en masse. 

Is Biden’s Green Energy Focus in Jeopardy?

Some environmental groups believe that President Biden’s green energy focus has been tainted by his approval of the Willow Project. They argue that the project is a contradiction to Biden’s commitment to combating climate change and that it will harm the environment.

However, the Biden administration argues that the Willow Project is a necessary compromise. At a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Biden remarked off-cuff that he’d been counseled that he would lose in court should he challenge the Willow Project. 

In the President’s eyes, such an action would result in losing out on conserving “significant amounts of Alaska sea and land forever.” So while it may not be perfect, at least there’s a consensus in the Biden administration that this is the best course—echoing the recommendation of the Bureau of Land Management. 

The canceling of the Keystone XL Pipeline project on day one in office, high profile snubs of oil and gas execs, vilification by Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, jabs from White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre—the Administration has heretofore been unabashedly heavy handed in voicing its disdain for oil and gas efforts, virtually in any form. Which is why the Willow Project approval seems at odds with the stance they’ve held for years.

In fact, the approval of the Willow Project seems far more in line with Biden’s off-script gaffe. This was evident during a recent State of the Union address when he candidly admitted We’re going to need oil for at least another decade….and beyond that.” In perhaps the rarest displays of solidarity seen in recent years, the remark drew a rousing applause from both sides of the aisle.

Perhaps Biden afterall sees the criticality that oil and gas still play as our society begins a transition towards renewables. Energy security requires recognizing critical needs and putting strategies in place that mitigate the risk to the greatest extent possible. The Willow Project may yet prove to be the mitigation strategy which presents the best compromise to both sides of the political aisle.

The Future of the Willow Project

Even with DOI approval and wading through years of regulatory quagmire, the future of the Willow Project remains uncertain. The project is facing significant challenges, both legal and with regards to public sentiment. Environment, social, and governance (ESG) has never been a hotter topic in corporate boardrooms as greener-minded investors demand more from companies in this arena. 

It is possible that, despite years of drawbacks, the Willow project will be able to overcome these challenges and move forward. However, it is equally possible that the project will be stopped or delayed by the courts once more and ConocoPhillips is forced to seek “greener” pastures wherever economically viable projects present themselves.

Get the Facts and Reach Your Own Conclusions 

At Shale Magazine, we dig deep into the facts behind the latest news and events affecting energy. We never shy away from hot-topic issues like the Willow Project because we believe our readers deserve all the facts and none of the fluff. To go further into the wide world of energy reform, check out our past issues. You can also get fresh insights from the movers and shakers in this fast-paced industry with our award-winning podcast, In the Oil Patch

Author Tyler Reed
Tyler Reed began his career in the world of finance managing a portfolio of municipal bonds at the Bank of New York Mellon. Four years later, he led the Marketing and Business Development team at a high-profile civil engineering firm. He had a focus on energy development in federal, state, and local pursuits. He picked up an Executive MBA from the University of Florida along the way. Following an entrepreneurial spirit, he founded a content writing agency. There, they service marketing agencies, PR firms, and enterprise accounts on a global scale. A sought-after television personality and featured writer in too many leading publications to list, his penchant for research delivers crisp and intelligent prose his audience continually craves.

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