With the deadline to appeal an August court decision come and gone, it appears federal approval for ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil project on the North Slope will be subject to at least a partial do-over, all but ensuring the development will be delayed multiple years.
Environmental and Alaska Native groups successfully sued the Bureau of Land Management over the agency’s approval of the environmental review for the major oil development, which took place under the Trump administration. On Wednesday, those groups thanked BLM officials under President Joe Biden for not appealing the August court ruling invalidating the permit.
But they also acknowledged that the Houston-based oil major has given every indication it will not drop the 100,000-barrels-per-day-plus oil prospect.
“The Biden administration’s decision not to appeal comes as good news. It also comes as the same old news, because we know that ConocoPhillips will continue to pursue this harmful extraction project on Iñupiat lands,” Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic Executive Director Siqiñiq Maupin said in a statement. “We know the real impacts on our bodies and communities. We know that fossil fuel industrialization is an attack on our health and food security. What oil corporations seeking to exploit our homelands need to know is that Indigenous groups around the country are united. We will, alongside our climate and human rights allies everywhere, continue to protect the lands and waters our ancestors protected for us.”
Tuesday was the deadline for attorneys for the Justice Department and ConocoPhillips to appeal an August order from Alaska District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, throwing out BLM Alaska’s October 2020 approval of the Willow Master Plan environmental impact statement.
Gleason ruled that BLM officials erred in, among other things, not sufficiently justifying their rationale for not estimating the project’s likely contribution to foreign greenhouse emissions.
That was in part due to a 2020 9th Circuit decision that vacated the environmental review for another North Slope oil project approved by the Trump administration. In that instance, the court ruled that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s approval for Hilcorp Energy’s offshore Liberty project was “counterintuitive,” in that the agency concluded that not developing the oil would result in greater foreign greenhouse gas emissions.
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ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Rebecca Boys said in an email that company leaders opted not to appeal because they felt the best path forward is to resolve the issues highlighted in Gleason’s decision directly with the agencies.
“We, and many important stakeholders, remain committed to Willow as the next significant North Slope project,” Boys wrote. “The merits of the project represent a strong example of environmentally responsible, low cost of supply development that offers extensive benefit to the public and the residents of the North Slope, including significant employment of Alaskan skilled labor from union and non-union trade associations and revenue for federal, state, borough and local governments.”
At $6 billion to reach first oil and up to $8 billion to fully develop, oil industry advocates see Willow as an infrastructure hub on the western North Slope that could spur other oil projects in the otherwise mostly undeveloped National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
ConocoPhillips had targeted the winter of 2025-2026 for first oil production from Willow, and estimated the project would generate up to 2,000 construction jobs over several years of development.
Bridget Psarianos, a lead attorney for SILA and the coalition of environmental groups, said she was not caught off guard that Interior Department officials and ConocoPhillips, which intervened in the suit, did not appeal.
“I think given the similarities with our case and the Liberty decision, which the 9th Circuit pointed to when we won our injunction back in February, we would’ve been a little surprised if they would’ve taken an appeal to the 9th Circuit,” Psarianos said.
In February, the 9th Circuit ordered fieldwork stopped at Willow largely before it started. ConocoPhillips had planned to open a gravel pit and begin laying gravel for roads and pads last winter before the ruling. The appeals court then sent the case back to Gleason, who then issued her broader August ruling invalidating the environmental review.
Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz declined to comment on the decision not to appeal Gleason’s ruling, but said BLM officials are determining their path forward in regards to Willow’s federal permits.
BLM’s initial environmental review and approval for Willow took slightly more than two years. It’s unclear how long a supplemental review or entirely new review would take, but it would likely be a multi-year process based on similar situations in the past.
Longtime Alaska oil industry attorney and analyst Brad Keithley said he believes the agency and company may have taken the more expeditious route to keep moving Willow forward by not appealing. That’s particularly true if the Biden administration still backs the project, he added.
“If (the Biden administration) wants to make this work, I think they can pull together the supplemental EIS in the short-term. If they view this as an opportunity to shut down development in the Arctic or set a precedent that’s going to apply to other projects — ANWR and elsewhere — then I think that’s what is going to lengthen it out,” Keithley said.
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In May, attorneys for BLM filed court briefs backing the approval of Willow, which drew the ire of the same groups now commending the administration for withholding an appeal.
Psarianos said her clients want BLM to improve the public involvement process, which was disrupted by the onset of the pandemic, for any future Willow review and take a much more holistic look at the project’s potential consequences.
“I think they really need to take a step back, gather baseline information and engage with the communities most impacted by the project,” Psarianos said.