ConocoPhillips is on a tight deadline for a start of construction this winter on its $6 billion Willow oil project on the North Slope.
Conservation groups are now pushing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to extend a review period for a new environmental review and proposed changes to Willow, which could result is missing the winter start.
BLM is taking comments on the new plan until August 29 but in comments to the agency a group of 10 conservation groups asked for that to be extended to at least mid-November.
If that happens it would jeopardize ConocoPhillips’ hopes of completing the regulatory process and starting construction on Willow this winter.
Willow is in the BLM-administered National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A, west of the large producing fields of the North Slope, which are on state lands.
BLM issued a new environmental review on Willow July 8 after a U.S. District Court judge in Alaska voided a previous Record of Decision, and permits, issued under the Trump administration in late 2021.
Because construction on Alaska’s North Slope is seasonal with most done in winter, if ConocoPhillips’ hoped-for winter start is delayed it will effectively lose a year on the project schedule.
If Willow’s schedule stays on track it could be completed in late 2025 or 2026, the company has said. Willow’s peak production now estimated at 180,000 barrels per day, a substantial boost for Alaska’s current oil production of about 490,000 barrels per day and declining.
Willow means a more than increasing oil production, however. The state’s petroleum support industry, the contractors and suppliers who supply services and equipment, have been in a slump since the pandemic in 2020.
Willow would be shot in the arm for support companies and their workers. Another project in the wings is the Pikka project, by Australia-based Oil Search and Repsol, a Madrid-based international company.
Willow is a strategic development, however because it would extend infrastructure, such as pipelines and utilities and a “stand-alone” processing plant,a further into the NPR-A, which would make other discoveries nearby more economic to develop.
What BLM issued July 8 was a new Draft Environmental Impact Statement with a proposed new “Alternative E” revised project plan intended to deal with issues raised in lawsuits brought by conservation groups.
In a late 2021 decision an Alaska federal judge voided the former EIS and permits that had been issued for Williow under the Trump administration, agreeing with the environmental plaintiffs that BLM had not adequately reviewed enough alternatives in the project design.
The proposed new alternative scales back the project from five production pads to three with a possible future fourth pad and relocates surface facilities away from environmentally-sensitive areas.
However, the redesigned project would result in essentially the same amount of production as ConocoPhillips’ original plan, a result of larger production pads and more reliance on long horizontal production wells.
ConocoPhillips said it believes the new plan is a good option. “Alternative E is responsive to the Alaska District Court ruling and represents a good path forward,” the company said in its statement.
Meanwhile, Alaska U.S. senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan urged Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to stick to the 45-day schedule to keep the regulatory procedure on track.
“Willow has already gone through a rigorous and comprehensive review including multi-year environmental analyses led by BLM across multiple federal agencies and affected communities,” the two senators said in a letter to Haaland.
“Timely completion of this process is critical to the project’s ability to undertake any level of development activity during the rapidly-approaching winter season. The North Slope’s winter construction season is the shortest in the world due to strict standards for ice and snow roads and temporary snow pads,” Murkowski and Sullivan told Haaland in the letter.
ConocoPhillips said it has already missed two construction seasons on the project due to lawsuits filed by conservation groups. “It is time to move forward. Willow has been thoroughly analyzed and there is no reason for further delay,” the company said in a statement.
Interior Department officials can’t be pinned down to a precise schedule, however, even with the current public comment period.
“After the close of the public comment period BLM will incorporate public comments into a Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that will assess potential impacts and take into consideration thousands of comments received during the scoping process,” for the draft SEIS, said Brian Hires, spokesperson for BLM.
There is no firm timetable for the final EIS, although it typically comes within two months.
Once the final EIS is completed a Record of Decision must be issued within 30 days, Hires said in an email. That will also trigger new federal permits under the new project plan.
That schedule, if it happens, could give a go-ahead to ConocoPhillips in early December. But it’s an extremely tight schedule to mobilize contractors and workers.
Any hiccups in process could cost the company another year.