Conoco shelves proposal to build a temporary island after criticisms from North Slope

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)

ConocoPhillips has made a big change to its development plans for its massive oil discovery on Alaska’s western North Slope.

Instead of building an entire, temporary island as a staging area to move its infrastructure to the remote Willow site, the oil company has abandoned that plan and now proposes to rely more heavily on ice roads.

The change is in response to criticism from North Slope residents and groups, including those in the small, Arctic village of Nuiqsut, who opposed construction of the island, according to Connor Dunn, Conoco’s development manager for the Willow project. They worried about pollution and impacts to subsistence activities and wildlife.

“We wanted to take those concerns seriously and took the opportunity to try and find a way to get the support of the community for a different option to bring these modules to the North Slope,” Dunn said.

The pivot demonstrates the influence that the North Slope’s indigenous people and groups can exercise over multi-billion-dollar oil companies like Conoco. In the past 15 years, the company has also changed its plans for bridge construction and power generation in response to local feedback.

The decision on Willow comes in the middle of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s environmental analysis of the proposed project. It’s significant enough to prompt BLM to push back its final decision on the project, the agency announced last month.

“This is very indicative of how public comments can help shape best decisions,” said Lesli Ellis-Wouters, a spokeswoman with BLM in Alaska.

The Willow prospect is located in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and, if built, would be the North Slope’s westernmost oil field. And that lends itself to unique logistical challenges. At the center: How to transport the giant pieces of the facility needed to process the oil that will come from the new field.

Conoco’s original island pitch

For the first time in about two decades, Conoco wants to send an oil processing facility to the North Slope, Dunn said.

Dunn is leading the effort to move the Willow project from an oil find to an oil producing field.

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)

A processing facility filters out sand and other unwanted materials from crude oil before it’s sent down the trans-Alaska pipeline. It also handles water and natural gas.

Dunn said Willow wouldn’t be able to use an already-existing processing facility because of its size and location

“We haven’t had anything as big as this really in about 20 years,” Dunn said.

At its peak, Conoco says, Willow could produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day. That’s compared to the roughly 500,000 barrels a day that currently flow down the whole trans-Alaska pipeline.

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

Dunn said the prefabricated pieces of a processing facility can weigh more than 3,000 tons. That’s like hauling more than two dozen large bulldozers.

The pieces are too heavy to drive them up the Dalton Highway to the North Slope, Dunn said. So Conoco needs to send the pieces by sea.

“The plan is that we’ll barge those up to the North Slope and offload them,” Dunn said. “And then the complex aspect is: How do we get them to this relatively remote location of Willow?”

At first, Conoco proposed building the temporary island out of gravel in the shallow waters of Harrison Bay, off the coast of the petroleum reserve. It would have measured about 13 acres — or roughly ten football fields.

The company said in the summer, when sea ice receded from shore, barges would carry the pieces of the processing facility to the island. And in the winter, the company would move the pieces to Willow by ice road.

Conoco said once it was done with the island, it would slowly wash away.

A pivot to roads

But, not everyone liked that plan.

Gordon Brower, a top land management official with the North Slope Borough, said the borough had concerns about the island’s impact on subsistence activities, including fishing.

He also said he didn’t think it made sense to use so much gravel for a temporary island. North Slope communities need gravel for roads and other projects, and it’s not an abundant resource in the region, he said.

“You really don’t want to waste any of it and allow nature to reclaim it,” he said. “You want to use it in a way that’s beneficial and I think that’s our approach.”

The tribal and city governments of the nearby village of Nuiqsut also raised concerns about the island, as did the usually pro-development Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

In a letter, ASRC told the federal government there was firm local opposition to the proposed island. It said community members had raised “valid concerns the gravel island would cause sedimentation of subsistence use areas and pollution from the sandbags used to secure the island in place.”

Environmental groups criticized the proposal too.

Andrew Hartsig, the Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic program director, said the proposed island would have had substantial impacts. The area is “a hotspot for marine birds,” he said. “And it’s also important feeding and denning habitat for polar bears.”

After a series of meetings with North Slope residents and other public comments, Conoco decided to shift directions, Dunn said.

That’s where more ice roads come in.

Conoco is now proposing to barge the pieces of the oil processing plant to an existing dock farther east on the North Slope. It would then move them along about 90 miles of gravel and ice roads to Willow.

Dunn said the drive would take weeks, but he doesn’t expect it to impact the project’s overall timeline.

So far, Dunn said, Conoco is hearing positive responses to the change.

“I think it’s a good call in, maybe, just responsible planning,” Brower said.

The revised proposal would use less gravel and reduce the amount of mining activity, according to Conoco.

North Slope residents and environmental groups, however, have also raised other concerns with Willow, apart from the island. Those include the project’s potential impacts to air quality, caribou and hunting.

BLM expects to release the supplement to its draft environmental analysis on the proposed Willow project this spring. It will also open a new public comment period.

Conoco estimates first oil production from Willow by late 2025 or early 2026.