ConocoPhillips’ Alaska division won an important approval this week from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), clearing the path for construction of the long-planned Willow project.

Located within the Bear Tooth Unit of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the Willow project could produce up to 160,000 b/d, with a processing capacity of 200,000 b/d over its anticipated 30-year life, BLM said. The project could produce up to 590 million bbl in total. It would also help offset declines in production from existing North Slope oil fields, the agency said.

The BLM’s record of decision (ROD), signed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, allows for construction of three drill sites and associated processing and support facilities, including gravel roads and pipelines to provide access to federal leases in the 23 million-acre reserve.

“This decision will make a significant contribution to keeping oil flowing down the 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline decades into the future while delivering federal and state revenue as well as important impact assistance to the affected native communities,” Bernhardt said.

ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. said it is in the process of reviewing BLM’s decision.

“The ROD is the key milestone that allows us to move forward with project planning. We believe the BLM and cooperating agencies have done a robust, thorough and extensive review of the project, and ConocoPhillips appreciates all the hard work it took to get to this point,” spokesperson John Roper told NGI.

Construction could start in 2021, though ConocoPhillips has said the Willow project could be delayed if Alaska’s Ballot Measure 1 passes on Nov. 3. The measure would increase taxes on ConocoPhillips and other large oil and gas producers in Alaska.

The ROD deferred a decision on portions of the Willow proposal that include two drill sites and associated roads and pipelines, so that ConocoPhillips Alaska can conduct additional outreach to affected communities, the BLM said. The deferral, however, does not alter the proposal.

The project, overall, required collaboration with several federal and state agencies, as well as the North Slope Borough, Native Village of Nuiqsut, City of Nuiqsut and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.

“This decision strikes an appropriate regulatory balance,” said Chad Padgett, BLM’s Alaska state director. “The project is an important job creator for families in Alaska, with more than 1,000 jobs expected during peak construction and more than 400 jobs during operations.”

Nearby residents expressed concerns about air quality and curbed hunting opportunities. Conservation groups opposed the proposal, calling it a threat to an important wetland complex that supports migratory birds, polar bears and calving for a caribou herd.

Officials in President Trump’s administration “saw an opportunity to check off another industry wish list box with the public’s attention diverted by coronavirus, and they took it,” said Kristen Miller, conservation director for the Alaska Wilderness League. “Fast-tracking the Willow project during a global pandemic shows a complete lack of consideration for local communities, or for the impact increasing oil and gas development will have in the region.”