In Fairbanks, some Alaskans welcome this proposed North Slope oil project. Others say ‘slow down’

About 40 people showed up Monday at a meeting in Fairbanks to offer comments for and against a proposed North Slope oil and gas project. Supporters say development of ConocoPhillips’s Willow prospect would create jobs and boost Alaska’s economy. Opponents warn it would further harm the environment and the health of people who live nearby. They also told federal officials to stop trying to rush the review process and give them more time to study the proposal.

ConocoPhillips has proposed developing the Willow oil and gas prospect in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Image credit Bureau of Land Management)

The federal Bureau of Land Management scheduled the meeting to get input on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Willow prospect, located in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve. The usual suspects testified in favor of the project — like Scott Eickholt, business manager of the Laborers Union Local 942.

“The Willow Project is a much-needed boost to the overall energy industry and the workers who rely on those jobs,” Eickholt said. “It could take more than seven years to construct the project and support 2,000 construction jobs, and could inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the Alaskan economy.”

Eickholt says ConocoPhillips estimates the project will produce some 130,000 barrels of oil a day. Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Marisa Sharrah says that could help fill the pipeline, which for years has been running at about 25 percent of capacity.

“Production from Willow will help maintain the integrity of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System,” Sharrah said. “The estimated production rate could be about 20 percent of an increase in current thoughput, and will help this critical component of Alaska’s infrastructure remain viable for decades.”

But opponents like Siqiniq Maupin say the project would produce more climate-changing greenhouses gases and would further foul the environment around Nuiqsut, a village located near the Willow site and other existing oil and gas operations.

Siqiniq Maupin, an Inupiaq who lives in Fairbanks, has family and friends in Nuiqsut, a village near the area in the NPR-A where ConocoPhillips proposes to extract up to 130,000 barrels of oil daily. (Photo credit Tim Ellis/KUAC)

“We have poor water quality up north,” Maupin said. “We have poor air quality. We are seeing cancer rates soar. And it’s disturbing to see many people that talk about jobs over people’s health.”

Maupin is an Inupiaq who lives in Fairbanks and works as a community organizer. She says her family in Nuiqsut and others there say the oil industry’s emissions of particulate matter like PM2.5 have dramatically increased asthma, especially in children. And she says other byproducts also harm the fish and wildlife area residents depend on for subsistence.

“We have had Nuiqsut residents come with sick fish they can’t eat anymore. That’s our traditional food,” she said. “We’ve had caribou that’ve had black bone marrow. … We haven’t gotten answers for this. You know, this is alarming.”

But oilfield worker Jesse Nee, of Fairbanks, says that’s not what he sees up on the Slope.

“I’ve worked in Prudhoe long enough that I’ve seen more wildlife up there than I have anywhere else that I go,” Nee said. “And I’ve spent a lot of time in the Bush.”

Project opponents say that’s corporate spin. They say state and federal agencies must conduct more studies on how the oil industry is affecting the health of residents and wildlife.

Karolina Pavic says more air-quality monitors are needed, besides the one in Nuiqsut operated by ConocoPhillips. Also needed, she says, are more independent reviews of models based on the monitors’ data.

“You put some numbers in a computer,” Pavis said, “but where did those numbers generate from?”

Pamela Miller says the Final Environmental Impact Statement must include more plain-language explanations. And she says it must include more maps that among other things would show all the many oil and gas operations around the Willow Project, and studies that show their cumulative impacts.

“There’s too much, too soon, too fast,” Miller said.

Miller, Maupin and others at the meeting said members of the public who want to know more about the development of northern Alaska’s resources are being overwhelmed by all the other projects that have been proposed for the area. Those include other NPR-A projects and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain and the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Road

Maupin and others said the federal government must stop trying to complete the Environmental Impact Statement process within a year, as President Trump has ordered.

“We need to slow down this process that’s been rushed,” she said.

BLM Project Manager Racheal Jones said after the meeting that her agency has tried to comply with the administrative directive to streamline the EIS process. But she says she was unable to accomplish that with the Willow project.

“We set milestones schedules to meet that timeframe,” she said. “And we’re not able to achieve that.”

Public comments on the Draft EIS will be accepted through Oct. 29. The Final EIS is scheduled to be completed next February, and a final decision on the project is due in March.