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By Jimmy Cloutier

ConocoPhillips spent $4.6 million on lobbying in the first three months of 2022 as it sought final approval for a delayed $8 billion oil project in Alaska’s federally administered National Petroleum Reserve.

The multimillion-dollar lobbying blitz is the most the oil company has spent lobbying in a single quarter since 2011 and more than its total lobbying budget in most prior years.

The so-called Willow project was greenlit in the final months of former President Donald Trump’s administration, but a federal judge halted development last August pending additional review.

Climate advocates, who argue Willow undercuts President Joe Biden’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, want his administration to end it for good.

Oil and gas companies are expanding efforts to shape federal legislation as the industry emerges from the pandemic.

An OpenSecrets analysis of disclosures filed last month found that the industry spent more than $34.8 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2022, an increase of 17% compared to the same period in 2021.

Texas-based ConocoPhillips is driving much of that increase by lobbying on a range of issues, including Willow and federal leasing.

The company’s first-quarter spending in 2022 increased threefold from less than $1.4 million during the same period in 2021, surpassing the company’s annual lobbying spending in nine of the last 10 years.

ConocoPhillips was the industry’s top spender in the first three months of the year.

lobbying expenditures conocophillips chart
Chart by Jimmy Cloutier. Image credit: OpenSecrets.

The increase in spending comes as the future of the company’s proposed oil project in the Alaskan Arctic has been thrown into doubt. The Biden administration initially supported Willow in lawsuits brought by activists but then declined to appeal the court’s ruling last August.

After finding the Trump administration’s environmental assessment failed to consider the full scope of Willow’s greenhouse gas emissions or its impact on local wildlife, a federal judge sent ConocoPhillips’ application back to the Bureau of Land Management for further review.

A group of environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Alaska Wilderness League in February pressed the bureau to decline ConocoPhillips’ application, arguing that Willow runs contrary to the Biden administration’s commitments on climate change.

Similarly, more than 140 organizations and businesses urged Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in March to block Willow permanently.

In a letter to Haaland, they maintained that the project would “lock in at least three decades of Arctic fossil fuel development at a time when the world is focused on climate solutions and a clean-energy transition.”

Willow is expected to produce approximately 590 million barrels of oil over 30 years, adding roughly 260 million metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions over its lifespan, according to the Bureau of Land Management’s initial environmental assessment.

On top of Willow’s legal and regulatory challenges, ConocoPhillips is facing congressional scrutiny after a massive gas leak was detected at the company’s Alpine project in Alaska, according to Reuters. An estimated 7.2 million cubic feet of gas, mostly planet-warming methane, has escaped into the atmosphere.

In a letter to CEO Ryan Lance, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the company’s response to the incident raises questions about how it would handle a similar leak at Willow.

But Willow still has powerful allies in Washington, most notably Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a senior member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who is part of the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus and one of a handful of centrists the Biden administration has sought to work within its search for bipartisanship.

Murkowski has championed the project while acknowledging the need to transition away from burning fossil fuels.

Disclosures show that ConocoPhillips’ lobbyists and government relations officials share close ties to Murkowski. Senior vice president of government affairs Andrew Lundquist and in-house lobbyist Drager Kjersten were both former aides to Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), Lisa Murkowski’s father.

Through Bluewater Strategies, Kjersten and Lundquist’s prior lobbying firm, ConocoPhillips also retained McKie Campbell, who worked directly for Lisa Murkowski from 2008 to 2013.

Disclosures indicate Bluewater Strategies — a firm specializing in energy, environment and natural resources issues — received $50,000 last quarter to represent ConocoPhillips on issues related to oil and gas “exploration and development” in Alaska.

Murkowski’s campaign has also accepted more than $388,000 in political contributions from the oil and gas industry this election cycle, including about $37,000 from those affiliated with ConocoPhillips, OpenSecrets found.

She is the fourth-highest recipient of donations from the industry.

Karina Borger, a spokesperson for Murkowski’s Senate office, told OpenSecrets that “Murkowski has strongly supported the Willow project from the start because it will be constructed and operated under the highest environmental and labor standards in the world, create jobs in Alaska, generate revenues for the state, help reduce energy prices, and provide an alternative to reliance on countries like Russia and Iran.”

Borger rejected the argument that new oil and gas development undermines the transition to clean energy, adding that Murkowski “has prioritized energy innovation, infrastructure, and resilience to help communities build cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable systems.”

The International Energy Agency warned against continued oil exploration in a report released last summer.

The global energy agency found that existing fossil fuel projects produce enough energy to meet global demand as the world moves towards clean energy.

In 2020, ConocoPhillips announced its intent to reduce operational emissions to net-zero by 2050.

If Willow is approved, it will be ConocoPhillips’ largest project to be developed in the Alaskan Arctic since the late-1990s, according to the company.

ConocoPhillips did not respond to requests for comment.

Originally published by Open Secrets.

Jimmy Cloutier is a Roy W. Howard Reporting Fellow at OpenSecrets, where he investigates the influence of money in politics. He holds a master’s degree from Arizona State University’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.