‘I’m very excited’: US Interior secretary plans Alaska trip with several key projects on hiatus

ANWR, the Willow Project and the King Cove Road are all up in the air
Published: Dec. 10, 2021 at 3:56 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Amid legal challenges to several stalled development projects, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is planning a trip to Alaska to learn more about the proposed King Cove Road.

She had planned to visit earlier in the year, but that was postponed due in part to high COVID-19 case rates in Alaska. Haaland said she’s very excited to visit.

“We are working on a schedule now,” she said in an interview with Alaska’s News Source on Thursday. “I don’t think we have a date planned yet.”

The road would go from King Cove through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to Cold Bay. There is a large airport at Cold Bay and advocates of the road say it would allow King Cove residents to fly out for medical treatment.

Environmental groups have long argued against building it, saying it would plow straight through critical habitat for rare migratory birds.

“It’s bordered by bodies of water on both sides, so it’s quite narrow,” said Bridget Psarianos, an attorney for Trustees for Alaska. “And it provides habitat for endangered birds and marine mammals.”

In 2019, the Interior Department approved a land exchange with King Cove Corp. It was rejected by a federal court, but that decision has been challenged. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to make a ruling.

During the interview, Haaland didn’t speak in support of the road or against it, but she said she was honored to have been in a virtual meeting with King Cove community members.

“Of course there’s nothing like being somewhere, on the ground, in a place,” she said. “I really look forward to being there and meeting with those people first hand.”

Della Trumble, spokesperson for the King Cove Corp., is excited about the Interior secretary’s planned visit.

“We just hope and pray that she will work with us,” Trumble said. “And make a positive statement in support of this land exchange.”

Haaland’s planned trip to Alaska comes with other key projects on hiatus. Earlier in the year, ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project was rejected by a federal judge, and its permits were vacated.

Judge Sharon Gleason said the approval process had been fatally flawed. It had excluded some greenhouse gas emissions from its calculations and underestimated potential impacts to endangered species, including polar bears..

President Joe Biden’s administration had backed the project in court.

“We supported it and the court did not support it,” Haaland said. “It is certainly not going to be the original project any longer.”

The oil giant says it’s still committed to Willow.

Erec Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, told an Alaska Chamber of Commerce meeting on Thursday that the Willow Project would be an “important development hub” for Alaska. At its peak, it’s estimated to produce 160,000 barrels of oil per day.

Isaacson did not have a specific timeline for the project.

“Currently Willow is being evaluated by the Department of the Interior and the BLM, and those cooperating agencies. So they’re currently working on those timelines,” he said to Alaska’s News Source.

Trustees for Alaska helped bring the lawsuit that blocked Willow moving forward. The environmental group wrote to federal agencies last month, urging for a wholesale project review instead of one that is faster and more narrowly tailored.

Haaland would not elaborate on the new permitting process and discussions going on between her department and ConocoPhillips.

“I can’t comment too much on that,” she said.

But she did say a priority for the department is for tribal consultation and “very vibrant communication with those communities.”

The interview with Haaland came one day after the North Slope Borough and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. joined a lawsuit challenging how the Biden administration suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation, has leasing rights on the Coastal Plain. It brought the original lawsuit against the Biden administration.

Alan Weitzner, CEO of AIDEA, believes the suspension of the leases is illegal and contravenes a 2017 law that mandated that lease sales take place.

“We do not believe that there’s any basis for it and we’re continuing our activities to receive continued permitting or request for authorization for scientific studies,” he said.

The Biden administration has made curbing climate change a stated priority. Haaland said “the president’s goal of getting to net zero by 2050 is real.”

So, how does the secretary reconcile support for the Willow Project with opposition to developing ANWR and concerns over climate change?

“I understand what you’re saying,” Haaland said before explaining that the department is working on “restoring balance” for public lands in the United States.

The interview with Alaska’s News Source was offered with Haaland to speak about new federal infrastructure spending going through the Interior Department.

Melissa Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Interior Department, said by email that officials had “no comment” on follow up questions about the new Willow Project permitting process.

“I understand that you turned a Bipartisan Infrastructure Law interview into a Q&A on Alaska energy projects with the Secretary today,” she added. “I am sorry that your audience will not have the chance to hear about the significant investments coming to the state.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will address the Alaska Federation of Natives on Tuesday. She is the first Native American to hold that position.

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