Final Willow review out; production estimate grows again

  • The Doyon Drilling Rig 141 is seen working at the ConocoPhillips Willow prospect on the eastern edge of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Photo/Judy Patrick/ConocoPhillips)

Oil companies worldwide are struggling to adjust to the immediate pandemic-induced market reset but ConocoPhillips took a step towards the long-term with the Aug. 13 release of the final environmental review of its $4 billion-plus Willow project on the North Slope.

Bureau of Land Management Alaska officials backed the company’s amended design for the largest oil development to date in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in the final environmental impact statement for the Willow Master Development Plan.

That plan calls for the eventual construction of five drill sites stretching north-south over approximately 20 miles in the northeast corner of the federal petroleum reserve. ConocoPhillips also has two other nearby developments in the NPR-A but the Willow project would be several times larger than the single-drill site Greater Mooses Tooth-1 and 2 projects extending from the Alpine field.

ConocoPhillips Alaska leaders have continually increased the expectation for peak oil production from Willow since announcing its discovery in January 2017, from approximately 100,000 barrels per day initially to upwards of 160,000 barrels per day now, according to the EIS. It is being designed with a processing capacity of up to 200,000 barrels per day. Overall, the project is expected to produce about 590 million barrels over 30 years.

ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman wrote via email that first oil from Willow is planned for the winter of 2025-26. She noted the company had previously disclosed that peak production rates would likely be in excess of 100,000 barrels per day, but the final rates and overall recovery volumes may differ from what is described in the EIS.

Company leaders in Alaska have said it will cost roughly $4 billion to achieve first oil at Willow and full field development will be upwards of $6 billion.

BLM Alaska Director Chad Padgett said Willow will provide access to valuable resources as well as jobs and revenue for the state; the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation lauded the regulatory progress for the major project in formal statements.

“With this important review process completed, we are one step closer to bringing this massive North Slope development to fruition — including hundreds of good-paying jobs for hard-working Alaskans, thousands of barrels a day in TAPS throughput, and billions of dollars of economic activity — without negatively impacting the environment Alaskans cherish,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Conservation groups such as the Alaska Wilderness League, however, insist the review downplays the impact the development would have on waterfowl and caribou in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, which is currently off-limits to industry and primarily designated to protect breeding and calving habitat for wildlife also harvested by subsistence hunters.

“Since the Trump administration took office in 2017, it has been laser-focused on handing some of the largest expanses of wild lands left in North America over to the extraction industries. The rubber-stamping of ConocoPhillips’ Willow proposal is just the latest example,” Alaska Wilderness League Conservation Director Kristen Miller said, also alleging BLM “fast-tracked” the review in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic despite calls to suspend the process until stakeholders could again focus on analyzing a supplemental portion of the EIS.

Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and North Slope Native village corporation Kuukpik requested an extension to the spring comment period for the supplemental EIS. Both are significant landowners in the region. BLM officials maintained the original 45-day comment period and held virtual public meetings on the project in early May.

Willow is primarily targeting the shallow, conventional Nanushuk formation that has been the source of several North Slope oil discoveries over the past five years, including the $5 billion Pikka project being advanced by Oil Search. It will be the farthest west oilfield on the North Slope if it is developed.

ConocoPhillips proposed connecting Willow to GMT-2 with approximately seven miles of gravel road as well as linking the drill sites with year-round roads; BLM officials preferred that plan over options leaving either the drill sites without year-round road access or limiting surface access to Willow to winter ice roads.

The company’s plan calls for 37 miles of new roads, seven bridges and one airstrip. The alternative plan to leave the drill sites disconnected from the processing and operations facilities includes two airstrips.

Former Assistant Interior Secretary and state Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash, who led the Trump administration’s work on numerous Alaska resource development priorities, said recently that subsistence hunters often complain that aircraft activity necessitated by roadless oil projects affects their hunts more than permanent infrastructure.

North Slope oilfield roads are also generally open to local use and ConocoPhillips will construct boat ramps at Fish and Judy creeks for subsistence access as part of its work at Willow.

The company initially proposed building a temporary island north of the project near Atigaru Point for offloading facility modules barged to the Slope in summer; however, the plan was scrapped after BLM officials heard from residents that construction of the island could disrupt coastal and marine hunts, which spurred the supplemental draft EIS published earlier this year.

Instead, ConocoPhillips will build 80 miles of ice roads and an ice bridge across the Colville River to reach the Willow development area. Construction will require 495 miles of ice roads in total over nine seasons, according to the EIS.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
08/18/2020 - 12:16pm