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Conservation groups aim to halt ConocoPhillips’ Willow project development

The area in question, Teshekpuk Lake, can be seen on this map of the National Petroleum Reserve.
The area in question, Teshekpuk Lake, can be seen on this map of the National Petroleum Reserve.(U.S. Department of the Interior, BLM)
Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 7:07 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Last week, ConocoPhillips Alaska CEO Joe Marushack laid out his company’s plans for 2021 during the 41st Alaska Resources Conference. Among those plans, a potential start on infrastructure work at the site of the Willow oil discovery.

“Over the winter season of 2020-2021, we intend to lay road to a new gravel pit for the project,” Marushack said.

The planned standalone facility at the Willow discovery would consist of three drilling sites and a processing plant. The Bureau of Land Management issued its record of decision, approving the project, on Oct. 27.

Last week, a lawsuit was filed against BLM, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking an injunction in the matter. Attorney Bridget Psarianos is representing the plaintiffs, a coalition of environmental conservation groups.

“This is not just another extension of the oil patch, the way that industry has tried to make it sound, this is right outside of a community where people live,” she said.

Psarianos works for Trustees of Alaska, an organization that focuses on litigation regarding the protection of Alaska’s animals, lands, waters and peoples — according to its web page. The main plaintiff in this latest case is Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic.

According to SILA North Slope Community Organizer Siqiniq Maupin, many of the community members that would be impacted most by this project feel they were shut out of the process when BLM decided to continue public hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You know, it was very disturbing to hear tribal administrators begging ... ‘Please, stop this process, I don’t know if my children are safe, I don’t know if my village is safe, I’m trying to do my job’ ... and they would say, ‘Thank you for your comment, on to the next person.’ The process has just been hard,” Maupin told Alaska’s New Source.

The legal complaint against federal approval for development at Willow is heavily centered around potential risks for the people and animals who have relied on the natural resources of that area for centuries. Specifically, the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area is known as a major nesting area for migratory birds and is home to the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd.

“There are 5 villages on the Arctic Slope that get food security from that herd,” Maupin said. “Unlike the other herds in Alaska, they winter in the Arctic and stay where they are.”

The lawsuit in question makes a specific reference to President Warren G. Harding’s designation of the National Petroleum Reserve in 1923.

According to their argument, the area was redesignated in the 1970s, “With congress passing a new law recognizing the exceptional ecological values in the Reserve. That law instructed the Secretary of the Interior to designate any areas containing significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, or historical or scenic values as special areas and to provide “maximum protection” for those values. 42 U.S.C. § 6504(a).”

During last week’s conference, Marushack declined to comment on a potential time-frame for resolving any legal issues related to the Willow project. Instead, he pointed to ConocoPhillips’ 50-year history on the North Slope, and their track record of success when it comes to permitting. Marushack also told conference participants that he feels that BLM has been very diligent throughout the process, in anticipation that a lawsuit would be filed.

“We fill that we and the BLM are compliant, and in a pretty good place,” he said.

Both Psarionos and Maupin told Alaska’s News Source on Monday that they believe the BLM’s record of decision was rushed.

“There’s a legal requirement that BLM demonstrates that the project be in the public interest and the agency didn’t even address that in its decision,” Psariano said. “They just skipped right over it. The agency did a sloppy job, I think, because they were trying to rush it out before an administration change.”

If the project does move forward, it could result in the creation of 2,000 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs, and could potentially generate $10 billion worth of tax and royalty revenues over its 30-year lifespan.

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