Guest opinion: Washington state benefits from Alaska oil leasing

Recently, President Biden launched the second phase of his attack on domestic oil and gas production by effectively blocking leases in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve (ANPR). That follows last year’s reimposed ban on exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Both actions are ill-advised.

In the Wall Street Journal, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) quipped: “The Biden Administration has imposed more sanctions on Alaska than it has on Iran.”

The Interior Department just blocked new oil and gas leasing on 13.3 million acres in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. Congress expressly set aside the region in 1923 for oil and gas development, but Biden ignores this saying drilling would disturb the Arctic’s ‘natural wonders,’ Sullivan added.

Energy development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are compatible and concurrent.

On Alaska’s North Slope, exploration and construction take place during the winter, over roads built on sheets of ice. When the ice melts, the roads disappear. Drilling and production have strong and long-standing environmental safeguards.

ANWR is not a place with towering snow-capped peaks and lush green forests. It is 19 million acres of frozen desert which is larger than the states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut and Delaware combined.

Although the 1.5 million acres in ARWR, called the coastal plain, were set aside for future leasing in 1980, drilling would occur on less than 2,000 acres. That is like a small dot on an 8-inch-by-10-inch sheet of paper.

“The U.S. Geological Survey estimates this sliver of land contains at least 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 8.6 trillion of natural gas, and those estimates are probably conservative,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized last year. By comparison, Alaska’s second-biggest oil field, Kuparuk, holds about 2.5 billion barrels.

In fairness to Biden, in 2023 he green-lighted leases in the Willow area, a 500-acre site inside ANPR. When in production it is estimated to produce 180,000 barrels of oil daily — an amount equivalent to 27 percent of Washington’s refinery requirements.

“All of this punishment for Alaska comes as the Administration eases sanctions on Venezuelan oil production and fails to enforce oil sanctions on Iran. Meantime, the Russians, and Chinese are increasing investment in Arctic oil, gas, and mineral development,” Sullivan noted in the Journal.

Allowing new oil and gas leases would help our country long term, particularly Washington refineries, workers and state and local economies. Current crude supplies from Alaska’s North Slope are declining and refiners have looked elsewhere for replacement stocks, i.e., oil-by-rail from North Dakota and tanker shipments from foreign countries, many of whom are hostile to America.

Washington’s five refineries provide 4% of our nation’s processing capacity. With our state accounting for 2 percent of national petroleum consumption, in-state refineries produce quantities more than sufficient for Washington’s needs. Those refineries processed crude oil into 13 million gallons of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and finished products each day.

Alaska crude comes to our refineries in double-hulled ocean-going tankers. Since the Exxon Valdez incident Prince William Sound in March 1989, state-of-the art redundant marine safeguards are aboard ships. Tanker crews have extensive safety and response training.

The crude, which is 12,000 feet below ground, would be extracted by a widely used technique known as horizontal drilling. Production wells would be spaced a dozen feet apart yet would reach out for miles in different directions underground. The oil would then be piped to Prudhoe Bay and sent 800 miles south via the existing Trans Alaska Pipeline.

“With a multiplier of 12 percent, the total impact of our refineries was 25,000 jobs and $2 billion in personal income, according to The Washington Research Council.

That is good for our state and country.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization. During his 28-year AWB tenure, he made many trips to Alaska’s oil and gas production sites on the North Slope and saw the vast operations firsthand. He can be contacted at