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Judge strikes down Alaska’s Willow Project permits, citing issues with approval process

 (AP Photo/Judy Patrick, File)
(AP Photo/Judy Patrick, File) (KTUU)
Published: Aug. 18, 2021 at 4:02 PM AKDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2021 at 4:33 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The U.S. District Court for Alaska has struck down permits for a proposed oil and gas project by ConocoPhillips in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, citing errors in the approval process.

ConocoPhillips’ Willow Master Development Plan, or Willow Project, is a proposed oil and gas development project under leaseholds in the northeast area of the National Petroleum Reserve. Indigenous and conservation groups filed a lawsuit in 2020 against ConocoPhillips, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior and others seeking an injunction against the project.

The plaintiffs argued Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service miscalculated the possible harm to wildlife.

In May, President Joe Biden’s administration filed a brief in support of the defendants, signaling support for the Willow Project. The administration argued the agencies that helped the with Trump administration’s approval process for the project did follow environmental and endangered species laws. Oral arguments were held in July.

In the ruling released Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason struck down the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of the Willow Project under the National Environmental Policy Act, citing issues with the bureau’s approval process and analysis in its environmental impact statement.

In her more than 100-page ruling, she concluded that the bureau had excluded foreign greenhouse gas emissions in its alternatives and analysis in the environmental impact statement, which she wrote was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Gleason also wrote that the bureau acted contrary to law when it developed an alternatives analysis “based on the view that ConocoPhillips had the right to extract all possible oil and gas from its leases.” She also found the bureau acted contrary to law in the alternatives analysis for the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, saying it failed to consider “statutory directive that it give ‘maximum protection’ to surface values in that area.”

Gleason also ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion on the project is also vacated, stating that the incidental take statement the agency used is not in accordance with law “because it lacks the requisite specificity of mitigation measures for the polar bear.”

“Additionally, the (incidental take statement’s) take finding with respect to the polar bear is arbitrary and capricious,” she wrote.

According to the ruling, the project is anticipated to have a peak production in excess of 160,000 barrels of oil per day and a processing capacity of 200,000 barrels of oil per day. The project is is proposed to have a 30-year lifespan.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has previously said the Willow Project could bring about $2.3 billion in revenue to the state.

In her ruling, Gleason said the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately analyze “a reasonable range of alternatives” for the project, a process the ruling states is “the heart of the environmental impact statement.”

Some praised Gleason’s decision Wednesday, including the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, one of the plaintiffs in the original case.

“Today’s court win recognizes that our land and our people deserve dignity and a pursuit of greater meaning,” said Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of the organization in a prepared statement sent by the Trustees for Alaska. “When we do not have to medivac our children out of the village so they can breathe, we can teach them how the native plants can be eaten. When oil fields aren’t blocking the migration and causing our caribou to starve, we can teach our youth how to hunt for our elders. This is our way of life, and today we defended it in court, and tomorrow and every day after that we will fight to protect it.”

A representative for ConocoPhillips said via email Wednesday that the company will review the decision “and evaluate the options available regarding this project.”

“Today’s decision validates what we’ve been saying throughout Willow’s approval process, that the Trump bureau downplayed the significance of climate change, underestimated emissions, and ignored the concerns of local Indigenous communities toward increased oil and gas extraction in the region,” said Kristen Miller, acting executive director at Alaska Wilderness League, in the press release. “The Biden administration must now review Willow with a fresh eye.”

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, however, reacted differently to the news of Wednesday’s ruling.

“Make no mistake, today’s ruling from a judge trying to shelve a major oil project on American soil does one thing: outsources production to dictatorships & terrorist organizations,” he wrote on his official Facebook page. “The Willow Project would power America with 160K barrels a day & provide 1000s of family supporting jobs. This is not over.”

Bridget Psarianos, a staff attorney with the Trustees for Alaska, said in the press release that the permits and approvals given to ConocoPhillips disregarded public process and the law, and that Wednesday’s ruling corrects that.

“It would be unconscionable to allow Willow to move forward when its authorizations were founded on an illegal and deficient environmental analysis that fails to lay out and address impacts to wetlands, water, land, animals and people,” she said in the release.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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