Alaska’s senators sharply condemned any potential Biden administration move to authorize ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion Willow oil project with restrictions so onerous it wouldn’t be viable, warning that would be seen as a rejection — and an unacceptable blow to residents across the nation’s largest state.
“They damn well better not kill the project,” Republican Lisa Murkowski told reporters in a briefing Tuesday.
At issue is the company’s proposed project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which could yield 180,000 barrels of oil per day. It’s won support from some labor unions and Alaska Natives in northern Alaska, who say the venture would unlock financial opportunity and new jobs. But Willow also is deeply opposed by environmental activists and some residents of a village roughly 35 miles away from the planned drilling who say it could disturb caribou migration patterns and exacerbate climate change.
The project creates a political challenge for President Joe Biden, who has sought to accelerate the US transition away from fossil fuels while also asking American oil companies to produce more crude in the meantime in a bid to tame gasoline prices. The Interior Department is expected to render its final verdict in early March.
The Interior Department has made clear its final decision on the proposed project could take the form of an outright denial or an approval with new strings attached. And some activists have quietly encouraged a two-well-only approval as a kind of compromise between the president’s climate ambitions and his appeals for more oil.
The head of ConocoPhillips has insisted that if drilling is reduced to just two well pads, or locations, at the site, the project wouldn’t be viable. The company supports a plan for drilling from three locations, which was already identified by career staff at the Interior Department as the agency’s formal preferred option.
“This administration knows full well that anything less — anything less — could kill this project,” Murkowski said.
“We think it’s being teed up to possibly be a ruse, to go to two pads,” Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, told reporters Tuesday. “It would just be an exercise of pure raw power, not science, and, importantly, not listening to the people who live there.”
A spokesperson for the White House didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment, and the Interior Department declined to comment.
Some Alaskan Natives who back the project were in Washington last week arguing for its approval. Members of the state’s congressional delegation have asked for another meeting with White House officials to press the case.
We want to “sit down directly with the president to share with him, in no uncertain terms, what the Willow project means for Alaska, Alaska Native people and the country,” Murkowski said. “If the president is going to make the final decision on this, then the president needs to hear directly from the elected representatives from Alaska as to the significance of this project.”