ConocoPhillips’ Willow Oil Development Proposal Threatens Landscapes, Communities and Our Climate

Imagine a place about the size of Maine, with a breathtaking expanse of open tundra, countless lakes and sparkling ponds, meandering rivers and coastal lagoons, and the majestic Brooks Range rising in the distance. The western Arctic is a boundless wilderness that stretches our imagination to a time when buffalo freely roamed across the Great Plains.

I’ve traveled this incredibly vast and beautiful region of Alaska known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Reserve), with a rich diversity of life including three caribou herds, high concentrations of grizzlies and wolverines, threatened polar bears, and millions of migratory birds from six continents. Many Indigenous communities, whose ancestors have lived on these lands for thousands of years, depend on the Reserve’s abundant food resources to sustain their lives and cultural traditions.

ConocoPhillips’ massive “Willow” oil drilling project would put all of this at risk. The largest version would include 5 drilling sites with up to 50 wells per site, processing and support facilities, more than 1,000 miles of ice roads, an airstrip, permanent gravel roads, new bridges, and more than 300 miles of pipelines.

The Biden administration has just opened a comment period on its new revised Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) that will help determine the fate of the project.

Willow poses an imminent threat to wildlife, and to local Inupiat residents who rely on healthy, wild foods such as caribou from the Teshekpuk Lake and Western Arctic caribou herds. The project would sit in the heart of the Teshekpuk Lake herd’s range, and biologists predict that endangered species such as threatened polar bears and spectacled eiders will be harmed by the Willow project.

In the words of Nuiqsut resident Joe Nukapigak, president of Kuukpik Corporation: “…we continue to believe that the version of the Project that was approved in 2020 will cause unreasonable and avoidable impacts on subsistence resources that are vital to Nuiqsut and other communities on the North Slope.”

Sadly, the Bureau of Land Management conducted the narrowest possible review to address the shortcomings in its prior EIS analysis. Of the many problems, three stand out:

First, the Willow project is completely incompatible with President Biden’s climate goals. At a time when we should be keeping fossil fuels in the ground, this project would also generate more than 287 million metric tons of CO2 emissions over the 30-plus-year life of the field.

Second, Willow is just ConocoPhillips’ first step to expand drilling in the Western Arctic. A ConocoPhillips VP told investors that the company had already identified 3 billion barrels of oil in nearby prospects and that Willow’s design was intended for expansion. The EIS recognizes Conoco’s ambitions but does not analyze the direct impacts from these future projects.

Third, the threat of more gas leaks is real. Oil and gas development projects come with inherent risks for spills and leaks. In fact, just this winter ConocoPhillips’ took months to respond to and repair a major gas leak on Alaska’s North Slope near an Arctic community. Representative Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee expressed that “[t]he ongoing leak and ConocoPhillips’ response raises a number of troubling questions, including how [ConocoPhillips] would respond to similar leaks at [its] proposed Willow project inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.”

The draft SEIS considers four action alternatives and a no action alternative—but with the huge shortcomings including those listed above, on top of the extraordinary natural values of this landscape, the latter “no action alternative” is the only one that makes sense.

Now is the time to raise your voice. Submit a public comment here to let the Biden administration know that the Willow project will do more harm than good. Already, oil companies on Alaska’s state-owned lands are developing oil fields all around the region, and other state lands are still available for leasing. The administration should keep their promise to reduce carbon emissions by keeping oil in the ground on federal lands, rather than decimate their climate goals by approving more oil development in the Arctic.

Debbie is the author of “On Arctic Ground” — the book features a series of guest essays and vignettes written by Debbie about the astonishing array of wildlife she has encountered over many seasons exploring the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.