Judge in Alaska upholds Biden administration's approval of the massive Willow oil-drilling project

JUNEAU, Alaska — A federal judge on Thursday upheld the Biden administration’s approval of the Willow oil-drilling project on Alaska’s remote North Slope, a massive project that drew the ire of environmentalists who accused the president of backpedaling on his pledge to combat climate change.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason rejected calls made by a grassroots Iñupiat group and environmentalists to vacate the approval and dismissed their claims against the project, which is in the federally designated National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The company has the right to develop its oil and gas leases in the reserve “subject to reasonable restrictions and mitigation measures imposed by the federal government,” Gleason wrote. She added that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s analysis of alternatives was consistent with the policy objectives of the petroleum reserve and the stated purpose and need of the Willow project.

The decision can be appealed.

Environmental groups have raised concerns about planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from Willow and argued that federal agencies failed to consider how increased emissions from the project could affect ice-reliant species such as the polar bear, Arctic ringed seals and bearded seals, which already are experiencing disruptions due to climate change.

Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice, who was involved in one of the cases, called the ruling disappointing but said, “We are entirely confident in our claims, and are considering all legal options including an appeal to the higher court.”

The project has widespread political support in the state. But climate activists said allowing it to go forward marked a major breach of President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to stop new oil drilling on federal lands. The administration’s action alienated and outraged some supporters, particularly young activists who launched a TikTok campaign to oppose the project ahead of its approval in March.

ConocoPhillips Alaska had proposed five drilling sites, but the Bureau of Land Management approved three, which it said would include up to 199 total wells. The project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day at its peak. Using that oil would produce the equivalent of at least 263 million tons (239 million metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions over Willow’s projected 30-year life.

The administration has defended its climate record, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland earlier this year called the approval of Willow “a very long and complicated and difficult decision to make,’’ noting that ConocoPhillips Alaska has long held leases in the region and that regulators tried to balance drilling rights with a project that was narrower in scope.

Interior declined to comment on Gleason’s decision Thursday.

Connor Dunn, vice president of the Willow project for ConocoPhillips Alaska, said in court documents that it was “highly unlikely” that Willow would proceed at all if the administration’s approval were to be vacated.

Many of the company’s leases in the area date to 1999 and are at risk of expiring by Sept. 1, 2029, if oil hasn’t been produced by then, Dunn said. There is no guarantee the company, which has invested about $925 million in Willow, would get an extension on its leases, he said.

In April, Gleason rejected efforts to halt cold-weather construction work by ConocoPhillips Alaska while litigation was pending, including mining gravel and using it for a road toward the project. That work ended in May. The company has been doing preparation work ahead of planned pre-packing snow for ice road construction for this winter, spokesperson Rebecca Boys said.

The project has been mired in litigation for years.

A prior authorization of Willow, issued in 2020 during the Trump administration, called for allowing ConocoPhillips to establish up to three drill sites, with the potential for two more proposed by the company to be considered later.

But Gleason set that aside in 2021 after finding that the federal review underpinning the decision was flawed and did not include mitigation measures for polar bears. The ruling led to a new environmental analysis and the Biden administration’s greenlight in March for what Justice Department attorneys said was a scaled-back version that resolved concerns raised by Gleason.

Many Alaska Native leaders on the North Slope and groups with ties to the region have argued that Willow is economically vital for their communities. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the state’s bipartisan congressional delegation and labor unions have touted Willow as a job creator in a state where major existing oil fields are aging and production is a small fraction of what it once was.

Some Alaska Native leaders in the community nearest the project, Nuiqsut, have expressed concerns about impacts to their subsistence lifestyles and said their concerns were ignored.

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