ConocoPhillips’ next big oil project in Alaska takes another step forward

Pipelines stretch toward the horizon in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The federal government today made another move toward advancing a major new North Slope oil project.

The Bureau of Land Management released a draft of its environmental analysis for ConocoPhillips’ Willow project.

The Willow oil development would be located in the federally managed National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, west of Prudhoe Bay and the village of Nuiqsut.

It would be a significant addition to the region, where ConocoPhillips already has built a series of other oil developments. The company hopes to construct a new oil processing facility, up to five drill sites, about 40 miles of permanent roads, a gravel mine and hundreds of miles of pipelines and seasonal ice roads.

ConocoPhillips estimates Willow could produce up to 130,000 barrels of oil per day. That would be a notable boost — this year’s average daily throughput down the trans-Alaska pipeline has been just over 500,000 barrels per day.

Natalie Lowman, a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips in Alaska, said the company is “encouraged” by the release of the draft analysis, calling it “a key milestone in the environmental permitting process for the project. ”

BLM anticipates the project would support hundreds of jobs — an estimated 350 direct positions once completed, and well over 1,000 during peak construction — and provide billions in tax dollars to the state, the federal government and the North Slope Borough.

But the draft analysis also concludes Willow “may significantly restrict” use of the land for the village of Nuiqsut, which relies heavily on subsistence hunting and is close to a number of other existing and planned oil developments.

“Nuiqsut’s core subsistence use area has shifted west over time due to the development in Prudhoe Bay,” the BLM’s draft analysis states. “The BLM expects that limitations to subsistence access and the reduced resource availability attributable to development of the Project would result in an extensive interference with Nuiqsut hunter access.”

Additionally, conservation groups are worried about environmental impacts. The Teshekpuk Lake Special Area is northwest of the proposed oil development, and is prized habitat for migratory birds and other species. The Trump administration is currently considering opening more land in the area to oil development.

“BLM will be allowing development that is likely to pose a serious threat to critical and irreplaceable habitat,” Karlin Itchoak, Alaska state director for the Wilderness Society in Anchorage, said in a statement.

Itchoak also criticized the length of the public comment period, which ends Oct. 15.

“That is not enough time,” Itchoak said.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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