Government approves Alaska Petroleum Reserve Willow project

Drilling rig in Alaska Image: ConocoPhillips

The federal government has approved the Willow oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, allowing construction near a prized conservation area in a largely undeveloped region.

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the government's record of decision Monday that lets ConocoPhillips Co. to establish up to three drill sites, a processing facility and gravel roads and pipelines on the North Slope, The Anchorage Daily News reported.

Two more drill sites and additional roads and pipelines proposed by ConocoPhillips can be considered later, the Interior Department said in a statement Tuesday.

Willow could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil daily with about 600 million barrels over 30 years. That would help offset dwindling oil production and Alaska state revenues, the agency said.

Construction would produce more than 1,000 jobs and more than 400 jobs during operations, the department said.

The Willow project and the Pikka oil project being pursued by Oil Search Ltd. are large new discoveries in the region west of Prudhoe Bay.

The federal government set aside the petroleum reserve nearly a century ago for its energy potential, but did not hold lease sales for years in the reserve of 93,079 square kilometres.

Construction at Willow could begin next year after regulatory approvals are granted, while oil production would begin about five years later, ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said.

Conservation groups criticized the proposal as a threat to the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a wetland complex in the reserve that supports migratory birds and calving grounds for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

Kristen Miller, conservation director for the Alaska Wilderness League, said the administration’s decision is a dangerous development rush. Conservation groups also said polar bears could be threatened.

“Administration officials saw an opportunity to check off another industry wish list box with the public's attention diverted by coronavirus, and they took it,'' Miller said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some – especially older adults and people with existing health problems _ it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

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