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Alaska federal judge upholds Biden administration’s approval of controversial willow oil-drilling project

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U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Alaska has upheld the Biden administration’s approval of the extensive Willow oil-drilling project on the remote North Slope. This decision has sparked opposition from environmental groups, who swiftly declared their intent to challenge the ruling.

The project, located in the federally designated National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, has been a source of contention since its approval in March, with environmentalists accusing President Biden of deviating from his climate change commitments.

ConocoPhillips Alaska, the company behind Willow, has been granted the right to develop its leases in the reserve, albeit subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by the federal government. Judge Gleason dismissed claims from a grassroots Iñupiat group and environmentalists, emphasizing that the Bureau of Land Management’s review of alternatives aligned with policy objectives for the petroleum reserve and the project’s stated purpose.

Environmental concerns center around greenhouse gas emissions from Willow and the potential impact on ice-reliant species, including polar bears and seals, already affected by climate change. Despite these concerns, Judge Gleason asserted that the agency’s environmental review adequately analyzed the indirect and cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Reacting to the ruling, Erik Grafe of Earthjustice expressed disappointment, confirming plans for an appeal. Bridget Psarianos of Trustees for Alaska called the decision “bad news” for the climate and future generations, emphasizing the commitment to protecting the Arctic from the perceived harms of the project.

While the Willow project enjoys political support in Alaska, it has faced criticism for contradicting President Biden’s promise to halt new oil drilling on federal lands. The project, with three approved drilling sites out of the proposed five, could yield up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day, contributing significant greenhouse gas emissions over its projected 30-year lifespan.

ConocoPhillips Alaska remains committed to the project, with Vice President Connor Dunn stating that it is “highly unlikely” to proceed if the administration’s approval is overturned. The company faces the risk of leases expiring by 2029 if oil production doesn’t commence by then. Despite ongoing litigation, ConocoPhillips Alaska intends to proceed with construction work this winter, emphasizing the benefits of responsible energy development.

The Willow project’s approval, initially granted in 2020 during the Trump administration, was set aside in 2021 by Judge Gleason due to flaws in the federal review. The subsequent greenlight by the Biden administration in March aimed to address these concerns and move the project forward, leading to the recent legal decision.

While the project has been divisive, Alaska Native leaders on the North Slope and those with economic ties to the region argue for its economic significance. Governor Mike Dunleavy and bipartisan congressional delegates view Willow as a potential job creator, countering concerns raised by environmentalists.

The ruling has elicited hope from supporters, emphasizing the importance of listening to the voices of those intimately connected to the North Slope lands. However, some Alaska Native leaders, particularly in the Nuiqsut community, remain apprehensive about potential impacts on their subsistence lifestyles, expressing dissatisfaction with what they perceive as ignored concerns.

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