ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A federal judge on Wednesday threw out Trump administration approvals for a large oil project on Alaska’s North Slope, saying the federal review was flawed and didn’t include mitigation measures for polar bears.
The drilling project was designed to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years.
U.S. District 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.
Environmental groups sued, arguing that the federal government had failed to take into account the effects that drilling would have on wildlife and that the burning of the oil would have on global warming.
Gleason agreed, writing that when the Trump administration permitted the project, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management’s exclusion of greenhouse-gas emissions in its analysis of the environmental effects of the project was “arbitrary and capricious.
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 [Bureau of Land Management’s] haphazard green-lighting of the Willow project.”
Rebecca Boys, a ConocoPhillips’ spokesperson, said the company would review Gleason’s decision “and evaluate the options available regarding this project.”
Representatives of the 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.
In October, 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 revenue. 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 ruled the lands agency acted contrary to law to the extent that 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 also was flawed, Gleason said in sending the case back to the appropriate agencies for further action.
The judge also found that the agency relied on a model for estimating the project’s overall greenhouse gas emissions that had already been rejected in another case.
“As to the errors found by the Court, they are serious,” Gleason wrote. “[The Bureau of Land Management] also failed to adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives for the Willow project — a process that is ‘the heart of the environmental impact statement.'”
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.
Alaska intervened on the side of ConocoPhillips during the lawsuit, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy implied an appeal in a statement issued after the decision.
“Make no mistake, today’s ruling from a federal judge trying to shelve a major oil project on American soil does one thing: outsources production to dictatorships and terrorist organizations,” the governor said. “This is a horrible decision. We are giving America over to our enemies piece by piece. The Willow project would power America with 160,000 barrels a day, provide thousands of family-supporting jobs, and greatly benefit the people of Alaska.”
Information for this article was contributed by James Brooks of the Anchorage Daily News (TNS); by Coral Davenport of The New York Times; and by Joshua Partlow of The Washington Post.