Although pushed hard by environmentalists and his own Department of Interior Secretary to go the other way, the Biden administration is defending the ConocoPhillips Willow project in court.
The project has the potential to put 160,000 barrels a day into the Trans Alaska Pipeline System for the next 30 years, for up to approximately 590 million total barrels of oil.
Willow is located on the edge of the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska and was approved under the Trump Administration in October. Then came the lawsuits from environmentalists who said the decision was wrong and oil contributes to global warming. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The Biden Administration is generally hostile to oil, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has written formal opposition to the project when she was a congresswoman.
During a meeting with Biden on Monday, when he signed a bill allowing cruise ships to return to Alaska, the Alaska delegation of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young told Biden that this project is vital to Alaska’s economy. According to the New York Times, on Wednesday the Biden Administration filed a brief in the case, saying the decision to go ahead on Willow was correct.
The Interior Department’s brief said that the Trump Administration’s green light for Willow complied with the environmental rules in place at the time and that Earthjustice did not challenge the approval “within the time limitations associated with environmental review projects” for the National Petroleum Reserve.
“Conoco does have valid lease rights,” the department wrote in its 70-page statement to the court.
More than 1,000 jobs are expected during peak construction of the Willow project, with more than 400 jobs coming online during the operation of it. Willow would help offset declines in production from the North Slope and the oil would be subject to royalties and revenue to the State.
“The project, known as Willow, set up a choice for the Biden administration: decline to defend oil drilling and hinder a lucrative project that conflicts with its climate policy or support a federal decision backed by the state of Alaska, some tribal nations, unions and key officials, including Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican senator seen as a potential ally of the administration in an evenly split Senate,” the Times wrote.
Update: Here are the statements from Alaska’s D.C. delegation in response to this action by Biden:
“Alaska’s relationship with the Biden administration got off to a rough start after the President’s sweep of a pen called for reviews – and potential halts – to a number of responsible resource development projects. I’ve been working from the get-go to educate the new administration on why the Willow project is so important to Alaska’s economy, the communities on the North Slope, and the thousands of people who are employed in the region. I am pleased to share that the Department of the Interior has filed a brief in support of Willow and has committed to supporting the project moving forward. Through their careful review, the administration reached the same conclusion that we have always known, which is that the Willow project went through a rigorous, comprehensive permitting process and can move forward because it is being held to the highest environmental and labor standards in the world,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“As a senior member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and former Committee chair, I have been aggressive in my advocacy for the Willow project. I brought the significance of the project to President Biden’s attention and many other senior White House officials on the first day of the new administration. During her confirmation process, I pressed now Interior Secretary Haaland to defend the Record of Decisions for the Willow project now being litigated in courts. I submitted multiple letters of support for the record from Alaskans and exhausted all avenues to send a clear message: this project has gone through an extraordinarily extensive process and should be allowed to proceed. The process goes all the way back to when the leases were acquired under the Clinton administration. The NEPA analysis was conducted using the Obama administration 2013 Integrated Activity Plan, which contains over 270 mitigation requirements. And a two-year long EIS process began in 2018 which included over 100 meetings with stakeholders on the North Slope and multiple public comment periods, resulting in a robust 2,600 page final EIS. The process across multiple administrations has been more than thorough. It’s time to move this project forward.
“At a time when Russia is providing more barrels of crude oil to the United States per day than Alaska, the Alaska Delegation has continued to stress to this administration the importance of this new development project located within the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. The Willow project would not only provide a valuable resource, but could also create around 2,000 high paying jobs in Alaska and support $2.3 billion dollars in revenue for the state—a boost to the economy at a time when we need it most. I’m glad the Interior Department has listened to our advice and will now defend the litigation and allow the permit to proceed. I urge Interior to show Alaskans that their words and actions align by taking the Willow project off their “pause and review” list once and for all.”
“On Monday in the Oval Office, I, along with my fellow delegation members, had the opportunity to deliver a message directly to the President, one that we’ve been making for weeks to every member of his administration: ‘Alaska’s Willow project is one of the most environmentally responsible and rigorous energy projects in our country, and the project deserves you and your administration’s support,’” said Sen. Dan Sullivan.
“Willow will create thousands of direct and indirect jobs in Alaska, and provide opportunities and billions of dollars in revenues for our state and indigenous communities on the North Slope. It will produce American energy with the highest environmental standards at a time when we’re importing far too much from our adversaries, like Russia. I appreciate the President and Secretary Haaland for listening to us and defending this once-in-a-generation energy development that will unlock many more opportunities for our state and our country. I also want to commend the numerous Alaskans and Alaska Native leaders—especially those who live within NPR-A and on the North Slope—for weighing in with the secretary and making the case for Willow. While this is excellent news for our state, I remain deeply concerned about some of the administration’s remaining policies that are still targeting Alaska and our workers, but today’s news on Willow is very positive for Alaska, good-paying jobs for working families, and our economy.”
“This is a good day for Alaska, our energy economy, and American energy independence. I want to thank the Administration, particularly my friend, Secretary Deb Haaland, for reaching what Alaskans know to be the right conclusion: the Willow Project is legally defensible and holds great promise for our state,” said Congressman Don Young, who has a good relationship with Sec. Haaland.
“Secretary Haaland is my friend, and while we do not always see eye to eye, I appreciate that she always listens to the Alaskan perspective with an open mind. I have advocated for the Willow Project in conversations with her for quite some time, and I am grateful for her attention on this issue. By halting the Willow Project, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a devastating blow to Alaska’s energy workers, their families, and all who would benefit from responsible resource development in the NPR-A. The Willow Project is years in the making, and countless individuals at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) worked hard to ensure a thorough environmental review. Late last year, when the Record of Decision was issued, BLM made clear that Willow could proceed all while protecting our environment. It is my great hope that in court, with the Administration on our side, we will ultimately succeed so that this project can deliver the good-paying jobs and affordable energy that Alaskans deserve.”