Alaska Senate votes to support Willow oil project as all legislators line up behind the effort

Some state lawmakers are joining various groups in a lobbying push this week, ahead of a key federal deadline

By: - February 28, 2023 5:00 am

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, is seen before the start of a session of the Alaska Senate on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska Senate voted unanimously to support the Willow oil project on Monday, following the Alaska House, which voted unanimously in favor of the project last week.

The Department of the Interior is scheduled to release its final decision on the project as soon as March 6, and state legislators are only the latest group trying to sway the federal government in the last days before the decision.

Federal officials have been working for years on the environmental permitting for the project, and the upcoming record of decision is a formal document that puts the Interior Department’s final word in writing. The Willow project has already gone through the process once before, but a lawsuit forced a redo.

This week in Washington, D.C., officials representing the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Alaska chapter of the AFL-CIO, Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation will be talking about Willow, said an official in the office of Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola, D-Alaska.

Those are just the groups arguing in favor of the project. Representatives of environmental groups are also headed east to argue against the project, and a rally against the project is scheduled for Friday, said Dawnell Smith of Trustees for Alaska.

But judging by the stances of the state’s chief officials, those arguing against the project represent a clear minority in Alaska.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy supports the project, and all three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation urged the state Legislature to unanimously approve a nonbinding resolution stating their support for the project. In the final tally, none of Alaska’s 60 state legislators voted against it, though four House members and one senator — Robert Myers, R-North Pole — were absent. Several legislators said they plan to travel east to deliver the resolution to the U.S. Capitol in person.

The University of Alaska Board of Regents approved a separate resolution on Friday, and various trade organizations have also chimed in with their support.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, represents the North Slope in the state Senate.

“I think it will definitely help the issue,” he said of the legislative resolution. 

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, speaks Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in favor of a resolution offering support to the Willow oil project. The resolution passed the Senate unanimously. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, guided the resolution through the state House and said that an AFN event in Washington, D.C. that was intended to discuss infrastructure will also be an opportunity to “beat on the drum” for Willow as well.

The North Slope is slated to receive billions of dollars in impact payments from the federal government if Willow enters full production, and state projections indicate the project would generate between $5 billion and $9 billion in tax revenue to the state of Alaska during its lifetime.

Project opponents point to its potential impact on global climate change. Environmental impact documents conclude that if the oil produced by Willow is burned, it would create 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

That’s more than seven times the amount of carbon dioxide released by the entire state of Alaska in 2020, according to figures from the federal Energy Information Administration. 

Support for Monday’s Senate resolution came from both Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said he’s heard from people who want a transition to renewable energy.

“The problem is that it is impossible to get to 100% renewable energy anytime soon,” he said, which makes a project like Willow important.

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said Willow is an issue of national security. The more oil and gas — and mineral resources — produced in the United States, the less it needs to rely on resources from hostile nations, such as Russia.

“We want to make sure we can never be leveraged by a hostile power,” he said.

ConocoPhillips Alaska, which is developing Willow, originally requested permission to drill for oil and gas from five sites within the federal National Petroleum Reserve on the North Slope.

In early February, the Bureau of Land Management said it would likely approve three drilling sites. A fourth drill site could be constructed later.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said that if the Biden administration tries to cut things back by approving only two sites in a final record of decision, it will make the project uneconomic.

That position was previously stated by ConocoPhillips.

“This is going to require a line in the sand. We need the president, we need the Department of the Interior to approve three drill sites,” Hughes said.

Alaskans may have an answer on Willow as soon as next week, but regardless of the decision, it won’t be the final answer. Proponents and opponents each expect the result to be challenged in federal court.

The Alaska Senate voted unanimously Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, to support the Willow oil project on the North Slope. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)


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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected].