Alaskan lawmakers, a former interior secretary, and environmental activists are reacting by turns with condemnation and praise for a federal judge’s decision to vacate approval for ConocoPhillips’s Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska (NPR-A).
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason’s Aug. 18 ruling on the project, which was expected to produce over 100,000 barrels of oil per day and thousands of jobs, cited insufficient calculations of greenhouse gas emissions and inadequately specific mitigation measures for polar bears, among other factors.
“In my personal opinion, the judge got the law wrong on the [Endangered Species Act] and the Biological Opinion,” former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told The Epoch Times. “The other items were reviewed very closely by interior professionals and their lawyers before the decisions were made.”
The ruling comes after the Biden administration suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in June. At the time, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland wrote that the Trump administration’s approval of the leases was marred by “insufficient analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act … including failure to adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives in the environmental impact statement.”
“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 & terrorist organizations,” Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement regarding the Willow Project ruling.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who collectively make up the state’s congressional delegation, also condemned the decision in a joint statement.
“This District Court Order vacating key approvals and permits for Willow is just plain wrong,” Murkowski said in the statement. “In partnership with communities on the North Slope, ConocoPhillips Alaska has been responsibly producing oil from the NPR-A region for decades under the highest environmental standards and this proposed project will be no different.”
“Willow’s extreme opponents wrongly believe this decision is good for the environment. On the contrary, if we are not developing resources here at home, countries with far lower environmental standards like Russia and Venezuela will,” Young added in the statement.
Young noted that Gleason’s decision came after the Biden administration’s Department of Justice filed a brief with the district court in support of Willow in May.
“As this case proceeds, I ask [President Biden] to keep his word and to stand with the people of our great state,” Young said in the statement.
“The filing demonstrates that two different administrations were comfortable with the approach taken by BLM,” Bernhardt said, referring to the Bureau of Land Management, an agency within the Interior Department.
Gleason’s ruling hinged in part on BLM’s greenhouse gas projections, which the plaintiffs argued were inadequate.
“BLM’s exclusion of foreign greenhouse gas emissions in its alternatives analysis in the [environmental impact statement] was arbitrary and capricious,” Gleason wrote in the opinion.
BLM had argued that it could not accurately model foreign greenhouse gas emissions due to “uncertainty and unreliable data” on factors including energy substitutions and “emissions from refineries, natural gas systems, [and] coal processing.”
“At some point, the question of ‘What is foreseeable?’ vs. ‘What is completely speculative?’ and ‘What is completely insignificant?’ are important issues in terms of where you draw the line for how far you go with your [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis and what you can do,” Bernhardt said. “There’s a difference between something being foreseeable and purely speculative.”
One of the plaintiffs in the case, an organization called Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic that was formed in 2019 by “three young people who wanted positive change,” previously claimed that the Biden administration’s May 2021 support for Willow “will undermine its own climate goals and allow harm to local Indigenous communities.”
Yet the Willow Project was actively supported by the president of the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, George Edwardson. In a letter to Haaland, Edwardson wrote that the Willow Project would “represent a durable addition to the North Slope economy and long-term sustainability for our region.”
A lawyer for another plaintiff, the Center for Biological Diversity, celebrated the ruling but said the Biden administration should take additional steps to restrict oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.
“This project never should have been approved, and it can’t be defended,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director and senior attorney for the CBD, said in an email to The Epoch Times. “If President Biden is serious about addressing the climate crisis, he has to reject any further attempts to move this project forward and prohibit all new oil and gas activity in the Arctic.”
“Any reasonable, comprehensive review would show that this project would be a disaster for our climate, local communities, and wildlife,” Monsell said. “Arctic oil needs to stay in the ground, and the Western Arctic needs to be protected, not turned into an oilfield.”
The United States as a whole is projected to produce 11.12 million barrels of oil per day in 2021, a decline of 160,000 barrels per day from 2020.
ConocoPhillips didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.