Chief Executive

Ryan Lance
was only a budding oilman when he first set foot in Alaska. Nearly four decades later, his company reigns supreme over the U.S. Arctic.

With most of its competitors abandoning the state, ConocoPhillips is forging ahead with drilling there, emboldened by President Biden’s approval this month of a robust, new project.

At a time when investors profess gloomy views of long-term demand for oil and demand quick returns from companies, Mr. Lance’s contrarian strategy sets him apart. The CEO says that a dearth of investments in oil and gas means that the world will need new supplies of crude; as a result, he is pursuing a strategy to drill wells that will yield oil for decades.

That plan is underpinned by ConocoPhillips investments in Alaska, where Mr. Lance’s career started. He spent around 14 years there navigating the state’s energy landscape, politics and, occasionally, its wildlife.

An avid hunter and fisherman, Mr. Lance embraced the local lifestyle. The oil boss likes to tell people about the time he was hiking through the Kenai Mountains and crossed paths with a bear, that chased him up a tree, said

Don Wallette,
a former chief financial officer at ConocoPhillips.

People who know Mr. Lance said his experience in Alaska shaped his advocacy for the roughly $7 billion Willow project in the state’s North Slope, which Mr. Biden greenlighted earlier in March. Willow cements ConocoPhillips’s status as the largest producer in the state and gives it license to keep expanding, analysts said.

Environmentalists argue Arctic drilling should be halted immediately to avoid a climate catastrophe. The project is expected to yield 180,000 oil barrels a day at its peak.

A ConocoPhillips exploratory drilling camp at the site of the Willow oil project in northern Alaska, in 2019.

Photo: ConocoPhillips/Associated Press

“These are larger-sized projects because we know the oil is going to be needed for decades,” Mr. Lance said at the CERAWeek by S&P Global energy conference earlier this month.

While competitors
Exxon Mobil Corp.
Chevron Corp.
grab more headlines, Houston-based ConocoPhillips under Mr. Lance has quietly become one of the largest Western oil producers. The company’s market capitalization, hovering around $118 billion, now exceeds that of British giant

PLC, which was one of the largest producers in Alaska before selling all of its assets there in 2019.

Alaska has been a reliable cash provider for ConocoPhillips. Between 2012 and 2022, the company’s business there prospered to represent on average around a quarter of its annual profit, according to a Wall Street Journal review of regulatory filings.

Mr. Lance, a Montana native, toiled away on drilling rigs in Wyoming to put himself through college and earn a petroleum engineering degree from Montana Tech University. When he failed to sign up for a job interview with oil company Atlantic Richfield Co., he brought a six-pack of Budweiser to the conference room where the recruiter was camping. He got an interview and nailed it, said

Jerry Schuyler,
the former recruiter and a confidant to Mr. Lance.

Mr. Lance in 1984 joined Arco’s Alaska unit—a company whose assets wound up in ConocoPhillips’ portfolio. It was a strategic move: Alaska at the time provided roughly a fourth of U.S. crude production.

Mr. Lance soon was promoted from a job handling oil field data to one overseeing drill sites—a task that required interacting with regulatory agencies and legislators in the state, said

Dan Pickering,
chief investment officer at Houston-based Pickering Energy Partners and a former Arco engineer in Alaska.

“Ryan got experience being not just a champion of technical projects, but understanding how the system worked,” he said.

Mr. Lance eventually became vice president of Arco’s operations in the Western North Slope, part of a region that produces virtually all of Alaska’s oil. Phillips Petroleum Co.’s acquisition of Arco Alaska in 2000 catapulted him up the corporate ladder. After Phillips merged with Conoco Inc., he was promoted to international roles, before being appointed CEO of the combined entity in 2012.

Under Mr. Lance, the company shrank its global presence, in part to give priority to assets generating the highest returns and augment returns to investors. But even as the company shed assets from Algeria to Kazakhstan, it kept nabbing leases and acquiring competitors’ wells in Alaska.

Major oil companies including BP and Shell PLC once also coveted Alaska’s oil riches. But regulatory challenges, combined with fruitless exploration efforts and the emergence of shale gushers from North Dakota to Texas refocused some drillers’ attention away from the remote, capital-intensive Arctic, leaving ConocoPhillips ample room for new business.

ConocoPhillips is the dominant oil company in Anchorage, Alaska, following the departure of rivals.

Photo: Reuters

“What we’re seeing in Alaska is a departure of the bigger companies,” said Republican Sen.

Lisa Murkowski
of Alaska, who has supported Willow. “Conoco has made a commitment, and they’re sticking by it.”

Willow has earned ConocoPhillips scorn from environmental groups, who say the project will emit climate-warming greenhouse gases for decades. But it has found support among some Alaska Natives’ associations, local politicians and the Alaska delegation in Congress. Proponents say that Willow could generate local, state and federal revenue of up to $17 billion and create more than 2,000 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs.

The project almost didn’t happen. In 2017, ConocoPhillips said it had found a trove of oil in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre area managed by the U.S. Interior Department. But a federal judge in 2021 threw out the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of the proposed development, dubbed Willow, saying the agency had failed to fully account for the project’s environmental impact, and that the agency needed to conduct more studies.


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Among the options explored by the bureau to reduce Willow’s footprint was that its scale be brought down from five drill sites—the company’s initial plan—to three. ConocoPhillips made it clear that anything less than three pads wouldn’t make the project viable. Mr. Lance made sure the company didn’t bend on that point, people close to him said.

Last year, as Mr. Lance made the case for Willow in earning calls, ConocoPhillips amped up its lobbying spending.

The company shelled out nearly $8.7 million, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending—more than what Exxon or Chevron disbursed that year. It listed continued advocacy for Willow among other issues it was lobbying for, according to quarterly lobbying reports.

A spokesman for ConocoPhillips said it had increased its engagement with key stakeholders on a range of energy issues and other legislation, including Willow. 

Ultimately, Mr. Biden gave a down-to-the-wire approval of Willow over fierce objections from environmentalists and many Democrats who wanted the project scuttled. The company was cleared to build three pads.

Environmental groups earlier this month sued the Biden administration to stop the project. ConocoPhillips has started building ice roads but agreed to pause some development until a federal judge has reviewed environmentalists’ request to halt construction activities pending litigation, according to court filings.

ConocoPhillips has said it doesn’t expect Willow to start churning out oil until around 2029. Those who know Mr. Lance say he believes his strategy will prevail.

“He believes in the long haul, the right answer will usually float to the surface,” said Mr. Schuyler, the former Arco recruiter.

Write to Benoît Morenne at