The Biden administration has thrown its support behind a major Arctic Alaska oil project approved under his predecessor, despite the president’s efforts to rein in climate change and drilling.
The move came in a federal court case, which was brought in November by conservation and Indigenous groups seeking to stop ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil project. It drew swift condemnation from those plaintiffs.
The U.S. Department of Justice argued in a 70-page brief on Wednesday that the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service properly followed environmental laws before the Trump administration approved the project in October.
The Willow prospect, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil daily and about 600 million barrels over three decades.
Project plans call for up to five drill sites, two airstrips, hundreds of miles of pipeline and ice roads, 37 miles of gravel road and a processing facility to prepare the oil for pipeline shipment. The discovery wells were drilled in the northeastern portion of the reserve under under the Obama administration in 2016.
ConocoPhillips said in a statement it is pleased with the Biden administration’s approach supporting a review that lasted more than two years.
“We believe that review satisfies the legal requirements,” said Rebecca Boys, a spokeswoman with ConocoPhillips. “Given the pendency of the litigation challenging the Willow project, we cannot comment further.”
Supporters of the project say Willow, if approved for development by ConocoPhillips, will pump billions of dollars into state and local governments over its lifetime, buoy the ailing Alaska economy with more than 1,000 construction jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Project opponents have argued that development will threaten imperiled polar bears, caribou and other wildlife, hinder subsistence hunters from the nearby village of Nuiqsut and lead to the production of more climate-warming greenhouse gases.
Siqiñiq Maupin, director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, said in a statement on Wednesday that the Biden administration is failing to stop a project that will harm people on the North Slope.
“This is especially disappointing coming from a president who promised to do better, but we’re not backing down and we will see them in court,” Maupin said.
Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic is one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Alaska’s congressional delegation, speaking with reporters Thursday morning, said they have made Willow a top priority and have pressed Biden cabinet members for months to support it.
On Biden’s first day in office, he halted oil and gas activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more than 100 miles east of Willow on the North Slope.
Soon after, Biden delayed new oil and gas leases on federal lands until a review that considers climate impacts is completed.
On Monday, the delegation met with Biden and pressed him on the value of the Willow project, with Sen. Dan Sullivan handing the president a Willow fact sheet. The meeting came after Biden signed legislation to allow cruise ships to return to Alaska this summer as the COVID-19 pandemic eases.
On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, called each member of the delegation to describe the upcoming court filing, they said.
As a New Mexico congresswoman in 2020, Haaland had urged the Trump administration to stop the oil project.
In March, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Sullivan broke with most of their Republican colleagues to support Haaland’s confirmation. Rep. Don Young also voiced strong support for Haaland during her nomination process, saying she’s a strong advocate for tribes and will work across the aisle.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Thursday said Alaska got off to a “rough start” with the Biden administration. But the administration took the right step with the court filing, she said.
It shows that the administration understands the importance of the project in Alaska, and recognizes that the Trump administration followed the law before approving it.
“This is a good day for Alaska,” Murkowski said.
Sullivan said in a statement that he remains “deeply concerned” about some of the Biden administration’s actions hurting Alaska jobs.
“But today’s news on Willow is very positive for Alaska, good-paying jobs for working families, and our economy,” he said.
Young said the project’s approval under President Donald Trump showed that Willow will meet environmental standards.
“I want to thank the Administration, particularly my friend, Secretary Deb Haaland, for reaching what Alaskans know to be the right conclusion: the Willow Project is legally defensible and holds great promise for our state,” Young said in a statement.
The delegation said they still have a lot of work to convince Biden to support other projects, including drilling in the Arctic refuge.
Sullivan said Haaland told him on the phone that she will expeditiously process the permits that will be required for Willow to advance toward oil production.
Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and the conservation groups won a key victory in the lawsuit earlier this year when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals halted work during the important winter season.
Trustees for Alaska said Wednesday that the Biden administration is now arguing that a “bare-bones Trump-era analysis of greenhouse gas emissions should be upheld,” even though the appeals court came to the opposite conclusion.
“This most recent action further erodes public trust since the 9th Circuit has already paused the project due to Interior’s faulty and illegal environmental review,” said Bridget Psarianos, attorney with Trustees for Alaska. “Yet, the Biden administration is continuing to defend the Trump administration’s rubber stamp of the Willow project in the face of relentless pressure from ConocoPhillips and Alaska’s congressional delegation.”
Sullivan said the delegation has emphasized the importance of racial justice, an issue Biden has focused on. He said the project is supported by many Alaska Native leaders and the predominately Alaska Native North Slope Borough that could see substantial revenues from the project.
Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the North Slope Borough said in statements on Thursday they support the filing.
“We hope the court will act quickly to rule in favor of the Department and allow ConocoPhillips to proceed with its lawfully authorized work at Willow,” said borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr.
Willow “will provide not only much-needed jobs for our people, but also tax revenue to support our schools, health clinics and other infrastructure and public services,” ASRC’s statement said.
Andy Mack, CEO at Kuukpik, the Alaska Native village corporation representing shareholders from Nuiqsut, near Willow, said he hopes the lawsuit is an opportunity for the plaintiffs, federal government, ConocoPhillips and Kuukpik to sit down and improve aspects of the project.
He said there were good elements to the Trump administration’s authorization for Willow, including reducing some impacts to the environment.
But the public participation process was flawed because it occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
In-person meetings weren’t held in Nuiqsut, so people had to attend online meetings to express their opinion.
In a small North Slope village, internet access is a problem and it can be difficult to download materials, he said. The meetings were poorly attended, he said.
“How much you think our elders were able to do that?” Mack said.
“At the end of the day, most people in the U.S. would expect to have an opportunity, on multiple occasions, to interact with the agency. We felt as a community we were left out of the process.”
Kuukpik, which owns an oil field services company, has always supported reasonable development, he said. But it also will protect the subsistence rights of shareholders, he said.
Kuukpik had asked ConocoPhillips to build a pipeline to deliver diesel fuel for Willow, instead of delivering it by truck, he said. The pipeline would help reduce vehicle travel to Willow, and reduce dust and disruptions to caribou migrations and hunters, he said.
Conoco didn’t accept that plan, he said.
“We’re watching,” Mack said. “We understand that folks seem to love this project. But we as Kuukpik will do what we can to protect subsistence.”