Biden defends Conoco’s Arctic drilling plan originally approved by Trump

Jennifer A. Dlouhy May 27, 2021
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WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) --The Justice Department is defending the Trump administration’s approval of a massive ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. project in federal court, over the objections of environmentalists who say the government didn’t adequately consider the venture’s effect on polar bears and the climate.

In a filing with the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, the Biden administration said Wednesday that Conoco’s Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska was approved only after years of analysis, consultation and public input.

“Plaintiffs seek to stop the extraction of resources from the petroleum reserve by cherry-picking the records” of the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, the administration told the court.

President Joe Biden previously directed the Interior Department to review its 2020 approval of the Willow project, which has the potential to produce 150,000 barrels of oil per day. The project could include as many as five drilling sites, hundreds of miles of ice roads, an airstrip and a gravel mine site, among other infrastructure.

Conservation and indigenous groups have argued the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management failed to sufficiently analyze the environmental and climate impact of the project. Environmentalists also have argued that planned gravel mining activities imperil a potential denning habitat for polar bears. In February, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an emergency order blocking ConocoPhillips from opening a gravel mine site and building roads.

The three Republican members of Alaska’s congressional delegation -- Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan as well as Representative Don Young -- pressed the issue with Biden in the Oval Office on Monday after he signed into law a measure that allows cruise ships to resume visits to the state, according to a person familiar with the matter. Sullivan even handed the president and White House staff a full-color one-page briefing on the project to help make his case.

In its filing with the court, the Biden administration argued the federal government followed applicable clean water, animal protection and environmental laws in approving the project. And, the administration noted, the Willow venture is set to take place on “valid leases” within the petroleum reserve, where Congress has specifically mandated oil development.

Environmentalists blasted the administration’s move Wednesday.

“It’s incredibly disappointing to see the Biden administration defending this environmentally disastrous project,” Kristen Monsell, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a news release. “President Biden promised climate action and our climate can’t afford more huge new oil-drilling projects.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday night.

Representatives of ConocoPhillips did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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