Mark Thiessen and Becky Bohrer
August 19, 2021
ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — A federal judge on Wednesday threw out Trump administration approvals for a large planned oil project on Alaska’s North Slope, saying the federal review was flawed and didn’t include mitigation measures for polar bears.
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage vacated permits for ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in a 110-page ruling.
The Trump administration approved the project in late 2020, and the Biden administration defended the project in court.
Rebecca Boys, a ConocoPhillips’ spokesperson, said the company would review Gleason’s decision “and evaluate the options available regarding this project.”
Spokespersons for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Interior Department said their agencies had no comment. The Bureau of Land Management conducted the environmental review of the project that Gleason found flawed.
Conservation groups and Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, described as a grassroots organization, had challenged the adequacy of the review process.
Karlin Itchoak, Alaska director for The Wilderness Society, in a statement called the ruling “a step toward protecting public lands and the people who would be most negatively impacted by the BLM’s haphazard greenlighting of the Willow project.”
In October 2020, then-U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the government’s record of decision that called for allowing ConocoPhillips to establish up to three drill sites, associated processing facilities and gravel roads and pipelines on the North Slope.
Two more drill sites and additional roads and pipelines proposed by ConocoPhillips could be considered later, the Interior Department said at the time.
Bernhardt had said the decision would make a “significant contribution to keeping oil flowing” through the trans-Alaska pipeline system “decades into the future” and provide revenues. The Bureau of Land Management said the project could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil a day with about 590 million barrels over 30 years.
More than 1,000 jobs were expected during peak construction and more than 400 jobs during operations, the agency’s then-state director said.
Gleason said the land management agency’s exclusion of foreign greenhouse gas emissions in its environment review was “arbitrary and capricious.”
She also ruled the agency acted contrary to law to the extent it developed its “alternatives analysis based on the view that ConocoPhillips has the right to extract all possible oil and gas on its leases.”
Gleason voided a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for lacking specifics around mitigation measures for polar bears. The agency had concluded that the project “was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of polar bears and not likely to result in the adverse modification of polar bear critical habitat,” according to the ruling.
The Bureau of Land Management’s reliance on that report was also flawed, Gleason said in sending the case back to the appropriate agencies for further action.
Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for the Defenders of Wildlife, called the decision “a win for our climate, for imperiled species like polar bears, and for the local residents whose concerns have been ignored.” She urged the Biden administration to examine alternatives to the project.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a statement, said the ruling “from a federal judge trying to shelve a major oil project on American soil does one thing: outsources production to dictatorships & terrorist organizations.”
He called the decision “horrible.”