Demonstrators protest the Biden administration’s approval of the Willow oil drilling project ahead of a planned speech by Biden at the Interior Department in Washington, March 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
A federal judge on Thursday upheld the Biden administration’s approval of the massive Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s remote North Slope, a move that environmental groups quickly vowed to fight.
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason rejected requests from an Iñupiat group and environmentalists to overturn approval of the project, and she dismissed their claims against Willow, which is in the Alaska’s federally designated National Petroleum Reserve. The administration’s endorsement of Willow in March angered environmentalists who accused the president of backtracking on his commitment to fighting climate change.
The company behind the project, ConocoPhillips Alaska, has the right to develop its leases on the reservation “subject to reasonable restrictions and mitigation measures imposed by the federal government,” Gleason wrote. She added that the alternatives analyzed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as part of its review were consistent with policy goals regarding the oil reserve and the stated purpose and needs of the Willow Project.
The groups that sued over the project expressed concerns about Willow’s greenhouse gas emissions and argued that federal agencies failed to consider how the increase in Project emissions could affect ice-dependent species such as the polar bear, Arctic ringed seals and bearded seals. , which are already experiencing disruption due to climate change.
Gleason said an agency environmental study “appropriately analyzed the indirect and cumulative impacts” of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice, which represents several environmental groups in one of the cases, called the decision disappointing and said an appeal was planned.
Bridget Psarianos, an attorney with the Alaska Trustees who represents Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and environmental groups in the other lawsuit, called Gleason’s decision “bad news not only for our clients but for everyone who care about the climate and future generations.”
“There are too many issues at stake to ignore the harm this project will cause,” Psarianos said. “We will remain committed to working with our customers to protect the Arctic from this devastating project today and in the weeks, months and years to come. »
The project has broad political support in Alaska. But climate activists said allowing it to continue was a major violation 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 before it was approved.
ConocoPhillips Alaska had proposed five drilling sites, but the Bureau of Land Management approved three, which it said would include up to 199 wells in total. The project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak. Using this oil would produce the equivalent of at least 263 million tons (239 million metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions over Willow’s expected 30-year lifespan.
The administration has defended its climate record, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland earlier this year called Willow a “very long, complicated and difficult decision to make,” noting that ConocoPhillips Alaska has long held leases in the area and that regulators were trying to balance drilling. rights with a project of more restricted 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 continue with its project if the administration’s approval were to be rescinded.
Many of the company’s leases in the region date back to 1999 and are at risk of expiring by Sept. 1, 2029, if oil has not been produced by then, Dunn said. There’s no guarantee the company, which invested about $925 million in Willow through July, will get an extension to its leases, he said.
In April, Gleason rejected efforts to stop ConocoPhillips Alaska’s cold-weather construction work while litigation was underway, including mining gravel and using it for a road leading to the project. This work was completed in May.
Following Gleason’s decision Thursday, the company announced plans to continue construction this winter.
Erec Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, said Willow “has undergone nearly five years of rigorous regulatory review and environmental analysis, including extensive public participation from the communities closest to the project site . Now we want to make this project a reality and help Alaska communities realize the many benefits of responsible energy development.
The project has been mired in litigation for years.
A pre-approval from Willow, issued in 2020 under the Trump administration, included allowing ConocoPhillips to establish up to three drilling sites, with the possibility that two more proposed by the company would be considered later.
But Gleason set that aside in 2021 after finding that the federal review behind the decision was flawed and did not include mitigation measures for polar bears. The decision led to a new environmental analysis and a green light from the Biden administration in March for what Justice Department lawyers had called a scaled-down version that addressed concerns raised by Gleason.
Many Alaska Native leaders on the North Slope and groups with ties to the region argued that Willow was economically vital to their communities. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the bipartisan congressional delegation and labor unions have touted Willow as a job creator in a state where existing major oil fields are aging and production is a fraction of what it used to be. she once was.
“Today’s decision gives us hope for our collective future on the North Slope and in Alaska,” said Nagruk Harcharek, president of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, a group whose members include leaders from much of the North Slope region. “Going forward, we hope that key decision-makers in the Biden Administration and Congress will listen to the voices of those who know these lands better than anyone: the Iñupiat North Slope. »
Some Alaska Native leaders in the community closest to the project, Nuiqsut, expressed concerns about impacts on their subsistence lifestyle and said their concerns had been ignored.