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This week, the Biden Administration approved a scaled-back version of a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The decision to greenlight the ConocoPhillips Willow project was announced on Monday, following many months of consultation with elected officials, local communities, Alaska Native leaders, and other stakeholders.
As a non-partisan conservation organization that supports collaborative solutions to complex natural resource management issues, the TRCP team feels a responsibility to guide hunters and anglers through the heated rhetoric around this announcement. Here’s our topline assessment of the decision to approve the biggest oil field in Alaska in decades, and what it could mean for important wildlife habitat in Northwest Alaska.
Willow is currently the largest proposed oil drilling project on America’s public lands. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that the project could produce up to 576 million barrels of oil over the 30-year life of the project. At its peak, Willow could pump out up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, or about 1.5 percent of all U.S. oil produced daily.
The Willow project would be constructed in the area known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. At more than 23 million acres, this expanse is the nation’s single largest tract of undeveloped public land. The region is home to several Alaska Native villages and provides important habitat for caribou, between 80 and 90 species of birds, and polar and grizzly bears.
The NPR-A has been reserved for oil development for many decades, and also includes directives from Congress to ensure the maximum protection of fish and wildlife habitat for Teshekpuk Lake, the Utukok River area, and other areas designated by the Secretary of the Interior. Oil production was not economically feasible until 2015, and the vast landscape has remained mostly intact and wild.
The Department of the Interior approved a scaled-down version of the Willow project, denying two of the five proposed drill sites. By reducing the project’s drill pads and surface infrastructure, the DOI is decreasing Willow’s footprint on public lands while ensuring the project remains economically viable. This balance is important because ConocoPhillips has held lease rights in the NPR-A since the late 1990s, and the leases are regarded as binding agreements. If the Interior Department had not approved Willow, the energy company could have sued the federal government and, if successful, been awarded billions in damages. Then, after a costly legal battle, ConocoPhillips could still have been allowed to drill.
Forced by a federal judge to address the flaws in the previous administration’s environmental analysis of Willow, the Bureau of Land Management and Interior used this review process to craft a solution that respects the existing leases while mitigating the project by securing additional safeguards for important habitat.
According to a statement by the Department, ConocoPhillips has agreed to surrender rights to 68,000 acres of its existing leases, mostly in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. The reduced project scope will decrease the project’s freshwater use and potential impacts to caribou calving grounds and migration routes.
There is fairly broad political support for the project across Alaska, including among the bipartisan congressional delegation, the state legislature, and the Alaska Federation of Natives. In the North Slope region, support has been described as a “majority consensus,” although notable opposition and concern about subsistence impacts have been expressed across the region and particularly from Nuiqsut, the community closest to the proposed development.
Environmental groups and climate activists are deeply concerned about the expected greenhouse gas emissions from the project. The BLM’s analysis estimates that using the oil produced by the Willow project would result in 239 metric tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year.
The Department’s Willow decision reduces the amount of surface infrastructure within ecologically sensitive areas, such as yellow-billed loon nesting areas, caribou calving grounds, and caribou migration routes. Although scaled down, the Willow project still carries impacts to habitat, wildlife and subsistence that should be minimized. For example, the approved version of the project has 21,114 fewer acres of caribou disturbances than the project proponent’s plan. Yet even with mitigation measures in place, some unavoidable impacts to caribou would occur.
Willow would also result in 532 acres of lost wetlands, 619 acres of potential polar bear habitat disturbances, and 17,037 acres of disturbances for birds. Durable mitigation, monitoring, and enforcement will be critical to ensuring development near Willow’s drill sites is least impactful to the region’s unique wildlife resources and hunting traditions.
In tandem with the Willow decision, the Interior Department recently announced a new public process to consider additional safeguards for more than 13 million acres of important habitat within the NPR-A for grizzly and polar bears, caribou, and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. These safeguards would be focused on the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay Special Areas. The NPR-A protections would bar development from landing in the reserve near Teshekpuk Lake.
The department also plans to “complete protections of the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean from any future oil and gas leasing” by withdrawing 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from development.
Our team at the TRCP supports the transition to cleaner energy, and we know that will take some time. Domestic oil production efforts—assuming the impacts to wildlife and local residents can be minimized—can be valuable bridges while we continue to reduce the demand for fossil fuels.
While this decision is far from perfect, as few real-world outcomes are, the TRCP believes the BLM attempted to thread a needle on the Willow project in working to offset impacts with conservation gains. Now, the TRCP calls on the administration to follow through with its commitments to increasing conservation measures and subsistence safeguards in the region and to do so in a timely manner.
Join TRCP’s Aaron Field and Ian Nakayama as they hunt private farm lands in Minnesota thanks to the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. This one-of-a-kind access program complements the full suite of habitat improvement programs that invest federal Farm Bill dollars at the local level. In the case of the VPA-HIP, there is a nine-to-one return on this investment in the form of outdoor recreation spending in rural communities.
In the video, Greg Hoch with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Craig Lingen with the Wilkin Soil and Water Conservation District share information about the importance and success of the VPA-HIP program in their state.
You can support strengthening this important public access program in the next Farm Bill right now.
The White House has released the president’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024, which contains some important line items for conservation. The document is meant to guide Congress as lawmakers begin to negotiate funding levels for the next fiscal year.
According to the proposal, the Biden Administration is focusing conservation investments in several key areas and agencies, in part to tackle climate change and address the biodiversity crisis.
Here are eight highlights that could affect hunters and anglers.
Notably, the president has prioritized a $15-million increase—and over $415 million total—to support restoration in the Everglades, one of our most unique and ecologically significant ecosystems. Hunters and anglers have been calling for full funding of Everglades projects since last fall. Take action here to add your voice.
The White House is recommending that $624 million, or $83 million over FY23 enacted levels, go to the National Wildlife Refuge System. This would be the largest budget ever for management of these public lands, where access to hunting and fishing has grown substantially in recent years.
The administration also wants to sustain funding of $50 million for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, our nation’s most successful public-private partnership conservation program. Strong support for NAWCA could also be good news for grasslands, if lawmakers embrace the idea of a North American Grasslands Conservation Act, built on the NAWCA model, this year.
The budget includes over $57 million for aquatic invasive species prevention, an increase of $7.4 million. In July 2022, the TRCP worked with partners and leading outdoor recreation businesses to establish a new blue-ribbon commission to stop and reverse the spread of aquatic invasive species in the U.S. The commission will soon release a landmark report detailing ways for federal and state governments to help control and mitigate the spread of aquatic invasive species.
The White House is requesting $3 million for the conservation and enhancement of migration corridors. This is an issue the TRCP has been intently focused on since the Department of the Interior’s Secretarial Order 3362 was signed in 2018.
The budget includes $80 million to support the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a nearly $6-million increase over FY23 enacted levels. This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program supports voluntary conservation on private lands, which will be a key focus of the America the Beautiful Initiative.
The budget provides $1.2 billion, or $208 million above the FY23 enacted level, to increase conservation adoption and farm income across privately owned land through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This funding helps support the historic investments for conservation provided in the Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year.
Finally, the president’s budget boasts nearly $52.2 billion in governmentwide climate spending, a near 26-percent increase from FY23 enacted levels. This proposed funding would run the gamut from climate-smart conservation practices on private lands to drought mitigation and carbon market development, and it is intended to move the United States closer to achieving the climate goals outlined when Biden first came into office. The TRCP and our partner groups continue share the perspectives of sportsmen and sportswomen experiencing climate impacts and proposing solutions to the administration and Congress.
Ultimately, appropriators in Congress will have the final say on spending levels for Fiscal Year 2024, a process now underway on Capitol Hill. The sporting and conservation communities are continually providing feedback on funding priorities and demand for programs on the landscape and look forward to building on these efforts in the year to come.
On Thursday March 9th, the Nevada Assembly Committee on Growth and Infrastructure held a hearing on bill AB112 to establish a Wildlife Crossing Fund within the State’s General Fund. The committee received testimony, all in support of passage, from over 20 individuals across diverse interests including hunting and conservation groups, livestock producers, road construction, and local government. The Fund, which would be administered by the Department of Transportation to work collaboratively with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, will support new and existing projects that allow wildlife to migrate safely across highways.
“Our roads, highways, and overall human expansion into wildlife habitat has to be balanced with their need to have safe migratory corridors,” said Carl Erquiaga, TRCP Nevada field representative. “Nevadans overwhelmingly support protecting wildlife corridors and this bill provides critical resources to ensure safe migratory routes for our native wildlife, like mule deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep.”
In Nevada, several major big game herds follow migration routes that traverse over a hundred miles annually, often crossing multiple major highways along their way. In some instances, animals cross these roadways for their daily movement hundreds of times a year. According to a Nevada Department of Transportation study, more than 500 wildlife-vehicle collisions occur on the state’s roads annually, at a cost of over $19 million to drivers and Nevada taxpayers. While Nevada has been a leader in constructing safe wildlife crossings in places like Interstate 80, Highway 93 and Interstate 11 near Hoover Dam, there are many locations in need of similar projects.
If passed, AB112 will provide needed funding for crossing projects that protect both people and wildlife. This initiative will also make Nevada more competitive for similar federal funding. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress in 2021, directed the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to distribute $350 million over five years through a competitive grant process to projects that reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve wildlife connectivity. Successful applicants will need to contribute matching funds, and AB112 would create a mechanism for Nevada to meet this requirement.
“I don’t know how many people have really been around these crossings, but they are great,” said assemblyman Burt Gerr of the 33rd district during yesterday’s hearing. “I think this is a great bill and a great project.”
The bill was amended to include language calling for consultation with affected parties who have grazing permits on federal or state land or private landowners near future crossings. The committee will likely hold a work session in the future and the bill will then go to Ways and Means before an assembly floor vote. The state Senate will need to vote to pass AB112 before reaching Governor Lombardo for signature to become law. Nevada sportspeople must remain ready to voice their support if the bill is to cross the finish line.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More