Biden administration can’t have it both ways by shrinking Willow project, Murkowski warns

An aerial view of one of the exploration pads and wells that ConocoPhillips drilled during the 2018 exploration season at its Willow prospect.
An aerial view of one of the exploration pads and wells that ConocoPhillips drilled during the 2018 exploration season at its Willow prospect. (Judy Patrick Photography / ConocoPhillips Alaska)

Alaska’s U.S. senators warn that half measures won’t suffice as they campaign to get federal approval for ConocoPhillips’ Willow drilling project in the western Arctic.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski told reporters Tuesday that the Biden administration may try to reduce the plan to two drill sites to ensure that it won’t be economically viable.

“So in effect, (they will) be able to have it both ways: The project doesn’t proceed – satisfies the environmental community – but they can say, Well, we approved it,” she said. “That is not acceptable. That cannot happen.”

ConocoPhillips originally proposed five drill sites west of the community of Nuiqsut, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

A map shows where ConocoPhillip's Willow oil project would be located -- on the eastern edge of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
ConocoPhillips has proposed developing the Willow oil and gas prospect in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (IBureau of Land Management)

The Bureau of Land Management has recommended an option that includes three drilling sites, or about 219 wells. But BLM’s parent agency, the Interior Department, immediately issued a statement saying it wasn’t required to approve that preferred alternative.

Sen. Dan Sullivan interprets that as a signal that Interior wants to curtail the project.

The online press conference was arranged through a public relations firm working for Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat , a pro-development advocacy group funded by the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the North Slope Borough. The group’s president, Nagruk Harcharek, said the 24 member organizations represent the leadership of the region.

“Our organization passed the resolution unanimously to support the Willow project, which is clear that there’s majority consensus on the North Slope,” he said.

National environmental groups oppose Willow. They say the project would threaten wildlife in the area and that the fuel produced will accelerate climate change. Other opponents include the city and tribe of Nuiqsut. They’ve written a letter opposing Willow, while Kuukpik, the village corporation of Nuiqsut, supports the drilling project that the BLM selected as its preferred alternative.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at

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