An endorsement of the proposed Willow oil project on the North Slope unanimously passed the Alaska State House on Monday, and there was no way 90 seconds of opposing testimony from a few Juneau residents a few days earlier was going to alter the outcome.
A gusher of support exists from Alaska’s most powerful politicians, the vast majority of Alaska Native organizations and others likely to be affected by the $8 billion ConocoPhillips drilling prospect in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which as of now would entail drilling more than 200 wells during a 30-year time span. Advocates say it will generate up to 2,500 construction jobs, about 300 permanent jobs and about $1.2 billion in property tax revenue for North Slope Borough to support a wide range of essential services.
“I think it’s fair based on my constituency to underline that this isn’t unanimous, but it’s a majority of our leadership within our region,” Rep. Josiah Patkotak, an Utqiagvik independent and a primary sponsor of the resolution, said during Monday’s floor debate. While he made a point of acknowledging some prominent opponents and their concerns, he also emphasized the lengthy process since oil was discovered at the Willow field in 2016 has resulted in a project that addresses those issues.
Which meant the three Juneau residents (and a scattering of others around the state) who each spent their 90 seconds of testimony during a committee hearing Friday echoing opposition from national environmental groups about adverse climate change impacts weren’t going to deter efforts to show Alaska is in near-unanimous favor of Willow. Elaine Schroeder, one of three members of 350Juneau – Climate Action for Alaska testifying, quoted the current U.N. secretary general declaration that new fossil fuel exploration is “delusional.”
“I’m calling for a resolution opposing oil and gas leasing, and development for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska,” she said, arguing federal analysis exists showing Willow would cause $19.8 billion in climate change-related damages. ConocoPhillips asserts the project will generate $8.7 billion in royalty payments and tax revenue to state, federal and local governments.
During her few remaining seconds Schroeder also referenced opposition from some leaders in Nuiqsut, the village nearest the Willow site. Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak has stated in numerous interviews and in testimony she is concerned it will negatively affect the health concerns of residents, and that it would imperil local caribou and fish populations necessary for subsistence.
Schroeder, when asked after the hearing what purpose she felt her testimony served given the obvious support for Willow shown by legislators, stated in an email after Monday’s vote “all I can say is that my conscience wouldn’t let me do otherwise.”
“The amount of human suffering that is already occurring due to climate disruption is unfathomable,” she wrote. “That the fossil fuel industry continues to gain huge profits at the expense of a livable planet is something we cannot ignore. Our legislature is in the hands of the fossil fuel industry.”
Opponents hope — and proponents fear — the Biden administration will within a couple of weeks opt for a last-minute maneuver that may effectively kill the project, either by rejecting it outright or recommending the size be reduced to the point ConocoPhillips deems it economically nonviable. ConocoPhillips originally sought five drilling pads for the project, the Bureau of Land Management at the beginning February gave preliminary recommendation to a three-pad project the minimum ConocoPhillips calls acceptable — and a notice of decision from the Biden administration is due within 30 days.
“They damn well better not kill the project, period,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said during a teleconference last week with other Alaska political and Native leaders. All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have strongly endorsed the Willow project as approved by the Bureau of Land Management and have stated they are seeking a face-to-face meeting with President Biden to argue against further reducing the size of Willow or rejecting it altogether.
The briefing was among numerous events, high-profile speeches and other efforts by supporters to show the vast majority of Alaska Natives and residents in the North Slope region support Willow, an attempt at countering national and global coverage that has often given prominence to opponents, such as a headline proclaiming “Outrage as US government advances $8bn Alaska oil drilling plan,” in the British newspaper The Guardian.
Supporters, including U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, in a speech to the Alaska State Legislature two weeks ago, also have portrayed the project in national security and strategic asset terms, admonishing President Joe Biden for recent efforts to import oil from Venezuela and the Middle East. But top officials at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, during presentations to state lawmakers during the past month, have stated they expect the state’s oil production to remain relatively flat until 2027, after which production from new fields will result in an increase.
ConocoPhillips begin the permitting process for the Willow project in 2018 and it was initially approved in 2020 under former President Donald Trump. But a year later a federal judge ruled a faulty climate analysis was involved and sent the proposal back to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The resolution approved 36-0 by the House (four members were excused absences), and a companion resolution in the Senate, both endorse the Willow project as recommended by the Bureau of Land Management.In addition to an overview of North Slope oil development and potential, the resolution also argues revenue from projects has boosted the health and economic well-being of residents in the area — and that wildlife and the environment have escaped harm.
“Safe and responsible oil and gas exploration, development, and production has been demonstrated by over 50 years of activity on the North Slope region without adverse effects on the environment or wildlife populations.” the resolution states.
Patkotak, when asked in an interview after the floor session if he considers that statement literally true, acknowledged there have been incidents during those 50 years affecting the environment, citing Prudhoe Bay specifically. But he said the impacts are minimal compared to early exploration efforts dating back before statehood and didn’t see the claim in the resolution affecting the credibility of other factual claims in the document.
Rather, he said he hopes the resolution makes it clear to the Biden administration that past efforts to mitigate impacts show the future impacts of Willow will not be detrimental.
“We’ve vetted it for the most part to mitigate any effects people don’t want to see happen,” he said.