Alaska House votes unanimously to support Willow oil project

a man in a suit speaks to a room of people
Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, speaks in favor of House Joint Resolution 6, the resolution in support of the Willow oil project, on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol. The resolution passed 36-0. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska House of Representatives voted unanimously Monday to support Alaska’s largest potential oil and gas development in decades.

The House’s 36-0 vote on a resolution supporting the Willow project is largely ceremonial but could help sway the Biden administration as the Department of Interior prepares a final record of decision on the project. Four lawmakers had excused absences.

The federal government’s decision could come as soon as March 6, and members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have urged legislators to put themselves on the record in support. In speeches at the State Capitol this month, Congresswoman Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, and U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, urged lawmakers to pass a resolution in support of Willow.

The state Senate could take up the resolution as early as Wednesday, but a Friday vote is more likely, said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. 

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is scheduled to address the Legislature on Wednesday and is expected to amplify the call to action on Willow.

Members of the Alaska Federation of Natives are scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., next week in order to lobby for support for the project, which is opposed by environmental groups.

When it entered office, the Biden administration set an ambitious goal: halving American carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. 

According to environmental impact statements published by the federal government, if the oil produced by Willow is burned, it would create 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, more than counteracting the Biden administration’s actions through March last year, the Center for American Progress said.  

That group, and the environmental law firm Earthjustice, are among those that have called for the Biden administration to limit or cancel Willow.

ConocoPhillips Alaska, the project’s developer, originally requested permission to drill for oil from five sites in the National Petroleum Reserve, a swath of federal land on the North Slope southeast of Utqiagvik.

The Bureau of Land Management has said it is likely to approve three sites, with an option for a fourth at a future date.  

If the government limits drilling to two sites, Willow would no longer be economically viable, Erec Isaacson, the president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, told Bloomberg in December.

Monday’s resolution says the Legislature supports “Alternative E,” the proposal with three (and possibly four) drill sites.

“A further delay in approval or construction of the Willow project undermines the values and benefits of the project to the state and its residents and is not in the public interest,” the resolution states, adding that the federal government should “maximize the area available for oil and gas leasing and development within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska while conserving and protecting valued fish, wildlife, subsistence, and cultural resources.”

If developed, Willow is expected to generate between $5 billion and $9 billion in production tax revenue to the state of Alaska during its lifetime, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources estimated in 2019.

That estimate, based on oil at $60 per barrel, is older but still the best publicly available figure, ConocoPhillips lobbyists said. The North Slope Borough and local communities also would receive billions in royalties and property tax payments. 

Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, represents the region in the Alaska Legislature and said that revenue is necessary in order to both transition the region to renewable energy and to sustain subsistence hunting and fishing. 

He noted that most North Slope leaders support the project.

“This isn’t unanimous, but it’s a majority of the leadership within our area,” he said.

He said Monday’s resolution took into account the concerns of all 40 lawmakers in the state House.

“It speaks to the fact that Willow, and development in general, is critical to making sure we have the funding to be able to pursue renewable energy projects wherever possible,” he said.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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