ConocoPhillips supercharged its federal lobbying operation in 2022 as it sought final approval for Willow, the controversial oil project in the Alaskan Arctic that President Joe Biden’s administration authorized Monday.
ConocoPhillips spent $8.7 million on federal lobbying last year, a nearly twofold increase compared to 2021 and the most the multinational oil company spent on lobbying in more than a decade, an OpenSecrets analysis of federal lobbying disclosures found.
Issues lobbied range from taxation to oil and gas regulations writ-large, and disclosures filed by the Texas-based company specifically mention lobbying the federal government for authorization to build its long-delayed project.
Willow initially received federal permits in the final months of former President Donald Trump‘s administration, but a judge found flaws in the government’s environmental impact assessment and halted development in 2021. Climate activists, who said the project undercuts Biden’s goal of reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, urged the administration to block development permanently.
The $8 billion project expands the company’s footprint in Alaska westward into the nearly 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve, the largest tract of public land in the U.S. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for approving oil and gas development on federally-managed land, greenlit a scaled-back version of ConocoPhillips’ plan, allowing for three drilling sites instead of the five proposed.
In its final decision, the bureau noted the approved plan would still allow Willow to produce an estimated 576 million barrels of oil over three decades. Transporting, refining and burning that oil will release the equivalent of 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over three decades, about the same amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by 64 coal-fired power plants in a year.
Alaska’s elected officials say the project will create jobs and bring billions of dollars in revenue to the state. Earlier this month, all three members of the state’s bipartisan congressional delegation — Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola — made their case for the project during a meeting with the president.
Several Democratic members of Congress urged the administration to reject Willow in a March 3 letter, citing the threat it poses to the climate and local Indigenous communities. But Peltola — the first Alaska Native elected to Congress — has said Alaskans must be provided with economic opportunities if the global transition is to be fair.
Murkowski, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is among a handful of moderate Republicans with whom the Biden administration has worked in search of bipartisanship. She has also been one of Willow’s most vocal advocates in Washington, D.C., while recognizing the need to move away from fossil fuels.
In a statement following the administration’s decision to approve Willow, Murkowski said Alaska was “now on the cusp of creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues, improving quality of life on the North Slope.”
Lobbyists share close ties with Alaskan senator
Lobbying disclosures show ConocoPhillips’ representatives on Capitol Hill share close ties to the senior senator. The company’s senior vice president of government affairs Andrew Lundquist and in-house lobbyist Kjersten Drager were both former aides to former Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), Lisa Murkowski’s father.
ConocoPhillips also has a long-standing relationship with Bluewater Strategies, a lobbying firm that specializes in energy, environment and natural resource issues. In 2013, the firm hired McKie Campbell, who was the staff director of the Senate Energy Committee from 2008 to 2012 under then-chair Murkowski. Campbell also sits on the executive board of ConservAmerica, a group of conservative conservationists whose congressional caucus is co-chaired by Murkowski and includes Sullivan, Alaska’s other U.S. senator.
In 2022, ConocoPhillips paid Bluewater Strategies $210,000 to lobby the federal government on several issues related to oil and gas, including “exploration and development” in Alaska.
Labor backs Willow
One of the country’s largest labor unions also pushed for Willow’s approval. The Laborers’ International Union of North America, which boasts about 500,000 members, spent nearly $2 million on federal lobbying in 2022. The organization, which lobbies on a range of labor issues including infrastructure spending and permitting reform, urged the federal government to approve Willow starting in July 2022 disclosures show. It advocates for an “all-of-the-above” approach to U.S. energy policy in which the country uses renewable power, as well as fossil fuels, to meet energy demand.
The organization did not respond to requests for comment, but lauded the administration’s decision as a victory for union workers.
The project, even scaled-back to three drilling sites, still calls for miles of new roads, pipelines, airstrips, a gravel mine and a large processing facility to be built in largely-untouched tundra and wetlands. The Bureau of Land Management estimates construction will take approximately eight years to complete and create up to 1,733 seasonal jobs. ConocoPhillips is expected to hire as many as 450 annual workers once oil production starts.
Fossil fuel industry opposed restriction on public development
Willow underscores the political and economic crosswinds that make restricting fossil fuel development difficult. In many states, the oil and gas industry remains one of the biggest political spenders — in 2022, it spent more than $192 million on state and federal elections — and is a major source of public funds. Willow is expected to generate as much as $17 billion in revenue for Alaska and the federal government. North Slope communities, especially, depend on economic activity spurred by oil and gas development.
The industry also lobbied heavily against Biden’s campaign pledge to end drilling on public lands. The administration eventually dropped the policy, which had faced a series of legal challenges, in a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to pass the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The historic spending package directed billions of dollars in clean energy technology but also requires the federal government to auction leases to oil and gas companies whenever it does the same for renewable energy projects.
Before announcing its decision on Willow, the Interior Department unveiled plans to ban future oil and gas development in the U.S. Arctic Ocean and protect roughly 13 million acres of Alaska land deemed important to Indigenous communities, caribou and migratory birds.
On Monday, the department also revealed that ConocoPhillips will relinquish rights to approximately 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the National Petroleum Reserve, including 60,000 acres near the ecologically sensitive Teshekpuk Lake.
While environmental groups welcomed the Biden administration’s plans to safeguard important biological areas in the Arctic, they said these steps cannot compensate for the harm Willow will inflict on the climate.
On Wednesday, Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a legal challenge on behalf of conservation groups to stop Willow from proceeding. The suit alleges that the Biden administration failed to assess the project’s full climate impact, neglected to consider alternative proposals that could have meaningfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and relied on a mistaken assumption that it could not deny or meaningfully limit ConocoPhillips’ proposed plan.
Litigation could further delay development.