Alaska judge upholds approval of ConocoPhillips’ $7.5 billion Willow oil project

Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Bloomberg November 10, 2023

(Bloomberg) – A federal judge upheld the Biden administration’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ 600 MMbbl Willow oil development in Alaska.

Willow project (Source: ConocoPhillips)

The ruling by Alaska-based U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason means ConocoPhillips can continue developing the $7.5 billion project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that promises to eventually yield some 180,000 bopd.

While equipment is being fabricated at Gulf Coast facilities, ConocoPhillips is preparing to resume on-site work during Alaska’s short, winter-operating season that could begin as soon as next month.

At issue is the Interior Department’s March approval of the Willow project following a fierce lobbying battle, an opposition campaign that went viral, and fraught deliberations inside the administration, where the issue was seen as testing President Joe Biden’s campaign commitments to combat climate change.

Environmental and indigenous groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, argued the government violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws by failing to consider the full impacts of the project on climate change and species in the region.

Some of the project’s challengers also took aim at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that Willow wouldn’t harm polar bears that have dens in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Gleason brushed aside those assertions Thursday, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decisions — including its conclusion that Willow-related work was unlikely to injure non-denning polar bears — were “reasoned” and within the bounds of law. Environmental groups failed to prove the agency disregarded better available scientific evidence about the impacts of greenhouse-gas emissions from the project, Gleason said.

Erec Isaacson, President of ConocoPhillips Alaska, celebrated the ruling, saying it “confirms our confidence” the government review complied with all legal requirements.

“Willow underwent nearly five years of rigorous regulatory review and environmental analysis, including extensive public involvement from the communities closest to the project site,” Isaacson said in a statement. “We now want to make this project a reality and help Alaskan communities realize the extensive benefits of responsible energy development.”

The project’s backers have argued the government’s review was expansive. They also emphasized that crude extracted from the site inside the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska would be produced under more stringent environmental protections than elsewhere in the world, helping to bolster U.S. energy security and provide an alternative to supplies from Russia.

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