A federal judge has affirmed the Biden administration’s authorization of the extensive Willow oil-drilling venture in the secluded North Slope of Alaska. This verdict has been met with opposition from environmental organizations, who have expressed their intention to challenge it.
Judge Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court denied the pleas of a local Iñupiat organization and environmental advocates to overturn the approval of the Willow project. Additionally, she dismissed their allegations against Willow, which is located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska designated by the federal government. The decision to approve Willow in March by the current administration sparked outrage among environmentalists who accused the president of reneging on his promise to address climate change.
ConocoPhillips Alaska, the entity responsible for the project, has been granted the authority to develop its leases in the reserve. This is contingent upon the federal government placing reasonable restrictions and mitigation measures. Gleason stated that the options evaluated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during their assessment align with the policy goals for the petroleum reserve and the intended purpose of the Willow project.
The groups that filed a lawsuit regarding the project expressed worries about the release of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. They also argued that government organizations did not take into account the potential impact of increased emissions on ice-dependent species like polar bears, Arctic ringed seals, and bearded seals, which are already being affected by climate change.
Gleason stated that the agency’s environmental assessment adequately considered the indirect and cumulative effects of the project on greenhouse gas emissions.
The decision was deemed unsatisfactory by Erik Grafe, a lawyer from Earthjustice who is representing multiple environmental organizations in the case. He stated that an appeal will be pursued.
Bridget Psarianos, a lawyer for Trustees for Alaska, who is representing Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and environmental organizations in the other legal case, expressed disappointment in Gleason’s ruling, stating that it not only negatively impacts our clients, but also those who are concerned about the climate and future generations.
Psarianos stated that the consequences of this project are too significant to overlook. He emphasized the importance of remaining steadfast in our efforts to collaborate with clients in order to safeguard the Arctic from the disastrous effects of this project, both now and in the future.
The project has received significant political backing in Alaska. However, environmental activists expressed disappointment in the decision to move forward with it, seeing it as a significant violation of President Joe Biden’s pledge to halt new oil drilling on federally owned land. The administration’s move has caused frustration and anger among some backers, particularly among young activists who initiated a TikTok campaign to protest against the project prior to its approval.
The Bureau of Land Management has approved three out of the five proposed drilling sites by ConocoPhillips Alaska, which could potentially have 199 wells. At its maximum capacity, the project has the potential to generate 180,000 barrels of oil per day. However, over the projected 30-year lifespan of the Willow project, using this oil would result in at least 263 million tons (239 million metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions.
The government has justified its actions regarding climate change, and in the past year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland acknowledged that the decision to proceed with the Willow project was a challenging and complex one. She also mentioned that ConocoPhillips Alaska has had leases in the area for a long time and regulators attempted to find a balance between drilling rights and a more limited project scope.
The Interior department chose not to provide a statement regarding Gleason’s choice on Thursday.
In legal papers, Connor Dunn, the vice president of the Willow project at ConocoPhillips Alaska, stated that it is improbable for Willow to move forward if the government’s authorization is revoked.
According to Dunn, a significant number of the company’s leases in the region were established in 1999 and may expire by September 1, 2029 if no oil has been extracted by that time. He also mentioned that the company has invested approximately $925 million in Willow as of July, but there is no assurance that they will be able to renew their leases.
In April, Gleason refused to stop cold-weather construction by ConocoPhillips Alaska while legal proceedings were ongoing. This included extracting gravel for a road towards the project. The construction was completed in May.
After Gleason made his decision on Thursday, the company announced that it will move forward with its plans for construction during the upcoming winter season.
The president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, Erec Isaacson, stated that the Willow project underwent a thorough five-year review and analysis by regulatory agencies and environmental experts. This process also included input from nearby communities. The company is now focused on turning this project into a reality and supporting Alaskan communities in reaping the rewards of responsible energy development.
The project has been involved in legal disputes for many years.
In 2020, under the Trump administration, a prior authorization was granted to Willow, permitting ConocoPhillips to create a maximum of three drill sites. The company may propose two additional sites for future consideration.
However, Gleason disregarded this in 2021 after discovering that the federal evaluation supporting the ruling was flawed and lacked steps to address polar bear protection. This decision prompted a fresh examination of the environmental impact and the approval of the Biden administration in March for a modified version that addressed Gleason’s concerns, according to attorneys from the Justice Department.
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 fraction of what it once was.
The recent decision brings optimism for our shared prospects in the North Slope and Alaska,” stated Nagruk Harcharek, leader of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat. The group consists of influential figures from various parts of the North Slope area. Looking ahead, we anticipate that important leaders in the Biden administration and Congress will heed the perspective of those most knowledgeable about these lands: the North Slope Iñupiat.
Several leaders from the Alaska Native community of Nuiqsut, which is located nearest to the project, have voiced their worries about the potential effects on their traditional ways of subsistence. They have also stated that their concerns were not taken into consideration.