Administration defends earlier decision to allow North Slope Conoco oil project

Biden administration attorneys are defending a decision made during the Trump administration to approve a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. Critics say the action flies in the face of President Joe Biden’s pledges to address climate change.

U.S. Justice Department attorneys, in a filing May 26, wrote that opponents of the ConocoPhillips-led Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska were seeking to stop development by “cherry-picking” the records of federal agencies to claim environmental review law violations. The filing defends the reviews underpinning last fall’s decision approving project plans.

Groups representing conservation and tribal interests sued to invalidate the Trump-era approval. An appeals court earlier this year halted certain construction activities, and parties in the case later agreed to keep in place construction activity limits until Dec. 1 while the underlying case continued.

The development, if Conoco proceeds to full build-out, is estimated at about $6 billion.

The May 26 filing came in the underlying case. The filing was lauded by members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, who have been critical of prior actions by President Joe Biden’s administration affecting resource development, such as a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski told reporters the defense of the Willow project was “good news for Alaska. But I don’t think that folks should believe that we’ve been able to all of a sudden charm the administration and they’re going to do whatever it is that we have on our to-do list. We have to work very, very very hard.”

ConocoPhillips is the project developer, and has said it could start producing oil from Willow in 2025-2026. A company spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment May 27.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, in its decision approving Willow, said production over 30 years could reach about 585 million barrels of oil.

Trustees for Alaska filed the case challenging the adequacy of the review process on behalf of conservation and tribal interests. Bridget Psarianos, an attorney with the group, in a statement said the Biden administration’s defense of the project “goes completely against its stated promises to take immediate and effective climate action, protect biodiversity, and take environmental justice concerns seriously.”

Scott Fogarty, executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, one of the litigants, said the administration’s response “gives us real reason to question their commitment to science-informed management and climate action.”


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