Field/project development

'Major Milestone': BLM Identifies Preferred Option for ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project

Environmental report recommends shrinking the Alaska project to three drilling sites from the five initially proposed by ConocoPhillips.

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ConocoPhillips’ beleaguered Willow Project on the Alaskan North Slope is now another step closer to the finish line as the US Bureau of Land Management-Alaska (BLM) released on 1 February its recommendation to move forward with a scaled-down version of the multibillion-dollar project.

“BLM identified Alternative E and Module Delivery Option 3 as the preferred alternative. This alternative and module delivery option provides for the protection of surface resources identified through public scoping and public comments,” the BLM stated in the final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the proposed Willow Master Development Plan in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A).

However, the US Department of the Interior issued a response stating that it had “substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final SEIS, including direct and indirect greenhouse-gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”

The Interior Department noted that its decision on the project will be finalized no sooner than 30 days after the publication of the final SEIS, noting that it could “select a different alternative—including no action—or the deferral of additional drill pads beyond the single deferral described under the preferred alternative.”

ConocoPhillips said in a statement that the final SEIS is a “major milestone in the permitting process that commenced in 2018."

The US independent announced the discovery of the Willow oil play in 2017, saying the following year that it believed between 450 and 800 million BOE were in the play. Peak production is pegged at about 180,000 BOPD and is expected to deliver $8 billion to $17 billion in new revenue to federal, state, and local governments.

A final investment decision (FID) for the project was expected in 2021; however, the US District Court of Alaska blocked the project by vacating environmental assessments previously approved by the BLM and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The court ordered both agencies to reevaluate the project’s effect on greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions along with its impact on wildlife, and reissue new findings before the project could move forward.

In July 2022 the BLM released a court-ordered draft SEIS to the project’s master development plan that included several development alternatives.

The preferred alternative identified by the BLM in the final SEIS reduces the number of drill pads from five to three, but does defer construction of a fourth drill pad to a later date.

“This is a reduction from the five drill sites initially proposed by ConocoPhillips and a reduction of project footprint in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area by more than 40%,” the company stated in a release.

Module Delivery Option 3 uses the existing Oliktok Dock to receive sealift barges, with modules then transported over existing Kuparuk gravel roads to a staging area near the Kuparuk drill site 2P. From there the modules would travel over heavy-haul ice roads and project gravel roads. A total of 80.2 miles of ice road would be needed, according to the final SEIS.

The company also noted that federal law requires 50% of lease revenue from NPR-A projects to be made available to a unique grant program that offers significant social and environmental justice benefits to Alaska Native communities.

“As a result, we believe Willow will benefit local communities and enhance American energy security while producing oil in an environmentally and socially responsible manner,” said Erec Isaacson, president, ConocoPhillips Alaska.

“After nearly 5 years of rigorous regulatory review and environmental analysis, the National Environmental Policy Act process is almost complete and should be concluded without delay. ConocoPhillips looks forward to a final record of decision (ROD) and is ready to begin construction immediately after receiving a viable ROD and full authorization from all permitting agencies,” he said.

According to the company, it intends to immediately initiate gravel-road construction once all necessary approvals are in place, and then proceed to FID. Additional North Slope construction activities for Willow will occur throughout the summer and fall. Concurrently, material fabrication will begin in US facilities and the pace of contracting and procurement will increase.

“We appreciate the strong support for Willow from communities on the North Slope and across the state, as well as from Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation,” Isaacson noted. “Willow will produce much needed domestic energy while generating substantial public benefits.”