Trump administration approves Conoco’s Willow project in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

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)

The Trump administration has approved ConocoPhillips’ development plans for its massive oil project in the remote National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, on the western North Slope.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the record of decision for the Willow project on Monday, earning praise from Alaska’s Republican Congressional delegation and governor, and condemnation from environmental groups.

The decision allows Conoco to construct up to three drill sites, plus an oil processing facility, pipelines, roads and other infrastructure.

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The Willow project would be the North Slope’s westernmost oil field, and the Department of the Interior says the project could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil a day, over 30 years.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a statement celebrating Willow’s approval that “the NRP-A is slated to be among the hottest energy prospects in the world.” Bernhardt said in a statement that the project will help keep oil flowing down the trans-Alaska pipeline, and will lead to hundreds of jobs.

“President Trump made his administration focus on American energy independence and the freedom it provides from day one of his term,” Bernhardt said.

But environmental groups are blasting the project, and say it poses significant risks to wildlife, including caribou and polar bears, and is a threat to the Teshekpuk Lake area, one of the Arctic’s most important habitats. Also, they say, it will further contribute to climate change in an already rapidly-warming region.

“The world remains mired in a global pandemic and the oil markets are experiencing continued volatility, yet this administration has once again opted to barrel forward with unnecessarily aggressive oil and gas development,” said a statement from Kristen Miller, conservation director at Alaska Wilderness League.

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Conoco described the federal government’s approval of the Willow project as a “key milestone” and says construction could begin as early as next year. The company says it’s planning for oil production to begin in 2026, though it has also said the project could be delayed if Ballot Measure 1 passes, which supporters of the measure say they don’t believe.

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More drill sites could be later added at Willow. The Interior Department says it will decide later on whether Conoco can add two additional drill sites. The oil and gas company requested the deferral on that piece of its proposal so it could do more community outreach, according to the federal agency.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.