Murkowski and Sullivan advocate for speedy approval of major Arctic oil project

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Jul. 24—WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are calling on President Joe Biden's administration to promptly advance the Willow oil project in a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Willow is a ConocoPhillips project on the North Slope that could yield over 180,000 barrels of oil per day and generate billions in state revenue. The Biden administration released a draft supplemental environmental impact statement earlier this month — a step in the federal approval process. The project could produce 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over 30 years, according to the draft environmental review.

Murkowski and Sullivan's letter to Haaland said the "timely completion" of the approval process is important for development to begin during this winter construction season.

The release of the draft review opened a 45-day public comment period set to end Aug. 29. While Alaska's two Republican U.S. senators and key North Slope leaders are pushing for the comment period to end as scheduled, some environmental and Indigenous groups are advocating for an extension.

Sullivan said he believes that the administration will ultimately approve Willow. The senator said Biden has assured the congressional delegation that he is in favor of the project.

"The key issue is they have to stay on this timeline," Sullivan said in an interview. "These companies that are going to put billions of dollars in investments, they don't have forever."

Rebecca Boys, a ConocoPhillips spokesperson, said the company also wants the Biden administration to move ahead. "We've spent years planning for this project and working with local communities on the North Slope to solicit input," she said in an email. "Further delay would only postpone the immense benefits the project."

The Trump administration approved the project in 2020. But conservation groups sued and U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that Willow was incorrectly approved. The decision effectively forced the permitting process to restart.

Both Murkowski and Sullivan slammed the White House in floor speeches Wednesday for taking other actions slowing oil development in Alaska and then taking a trip to Saudi Arabia to boost the global oil supply. Sullivan called the approach "an insult" and Murkowski called it a "sucker punch."

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The senators cited support for Willow from the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association in their letter to Haaland. Also, Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope Executive Director Morrie Lemon, North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. President and CEO Rex Rock Sr. sent a July 21 letter to Haaland opposing requests to extend the comment period.

"A delay is unnecessary, harmful and contrary to the interests of the Alaska Native people who call the North Slope home." the letter said.

However, not everyone is on board with the current timeline.

Environmental and Indigenous groups sent their own letter to Haaland in June highlighting conservation and pollution concerns. Their letter, signed by 18 groups, several based in Alaska, called permitting Willow a legacy-defining decision.

The groups said approving the project would fly in the face of the Biden administration's climate goals. Last year, Biden said that the U.S. should strive to reach a 50% to 52% decrease in 2005 greenhouse gas pollution levels by 2030.

"It's shocking," Sierra Club Alaska chapter director Andrea Feniger said. "It's surprising that they believe that this project can go forward and they can still meet those goals because it's simply impossible."

Boys with ConocoPhillips said that the project is compatible with the administration's "core principles of environmental and social justice" and that oil from Willow "represents some of the most environmentally and socially responsible barrels that can be developed anywhere."

Alaska Wilderness League state director Andy Moderow criticized the length of time the public was given to comment on the environmental review, saying 45 days is not nearly enough.

"The shortest period required by law is not sufficient to review the impacts to climate, to people on the lands," Moderow said.

Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of Nuiqsut, the village closest to the proposed project, said the comment period does not give the community enough time to go over the new environmental review and weigh in.

"We are really wishing for an extension to the comment period," she said. "It's very hard to be out on the lands and waters gathering our traditional and cultural resources, when we have the activities of turning to read these large documents related to changing our land and waters."

"Forty-five days is not enough," she added. "One hundred and twenty days would give us enough time to really go through the document the way it's supposed to be done."