ALASKA: Court Halts Major Arctic Drilling Project

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, August 19, 2021 (ENS) – The Alaska Federal District Court Wednesday vacated the approval of a large oil and gas project known as the Willow Master Development Plan in Alaska’s Western Arctic. Originally approved by the Trump administration, the approval was defended in court by the Biden administration, despite its climate action pledges and temporary suspension of fossil fuel leasing on public lands.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that the Bureau of Land Management had failed to properly consider the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions generated by the ConocoPhillips project, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, and to properly consider the impacts of the project on polar bears, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“This is a huge victory for our climate and polar bears,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the national nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiff groups.

“It’s a message to the Biden administration that Arctic drilling threatens our climate and vulnerable species. This project never should have been approved, and it can’t be defended,” said Monsell. “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.”

ConocoPhillips Alaska, Inc. had a plan that involved using giant chillers to refreeze thawing permafrost to ensure a solid drilling surface.

The project would have involved drilling up to 250 wells and building and operating a processing facility, 575+ miles of ice roads, seven bridges, 300+ miles of pipelines, an airstrip, a gravel mine, and a constructed freshwater reservoir in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Burning the estimated 590 million barrels of oil to be extracted during the life of the project would have resulted in nearly 280 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions – the equivalent of nearly 65 coal plants operating for a year.

The Center challenged the Willow Master Development Plan along with Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other groups, including: Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society.

The nonprofit, public interest law firm Earthjustice represented the groups in the case.

“We were very surprised to see the Biden administration, which has promised historic progress on climate change, defending this plan in court – but today’s decision gives the administration the opportunity to reconsider the project in light of its commitment to address the climate emergency,” said Earthjustice attorney Jeremy Lieb.

“We are hopeful that the administration won’t give the fossil fuel industry another chance to carve up this irreplaceable Arctic landscape with drilling rigs, roads, and pipelines,” Lieb said. “We must keep Arctic oil in the ground if we want a livable planet for future generations.”

The Trump administration approved the project in October 2020. The Biden administration pledged to review that approval upon taking office. It then defended the approval of the project in court.

The Center for Biological Diversity speculated that, “The Biden administration seemingly defended the project in court to garner favor with U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a key project supporter.”

“We don’t have time to be playing politics with our climate,” Monsell said. “Any reasonable, comprehensive review would show that this project would be a disaster for our climate, local communities and wildlife. Arctic oil needs to stay in the ground, and the Western Arctic needs to be protected, not turned into an oilfield.”

Featured image: ConocoPhillips drill site Western North Slope, Alaska (Photo courtesy ConocoPhillips)

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