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ConocoPhillips and Biden administration will not appeal court ruling blocking permit for large North Slope oil project

With the deadline to appeal an August court decision passed, it looks like federal approval of ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil project on the North Slope will be subject to at least a partial overhaul, while ensuring that the development will be delayed for several years. .

Environmental and native groups in Alaska have successfully sued the Bureau of Land Management for the agency’s approval of the environmental review of the major oil development, which took place under the Trump administration. These groups on Wednesday thanked BLM officials under President Joe Biden for not appealing the August court ruling invalidating the permit.

But they also acknowledged that the Houston-based oil major has given all indications that she will not drop the oil prospect of over 100,000 barrels a day.

“The Biden administration’s decision not to appeal is good news. This is also the same old news, because we know that ConocoPhillips will continue to pursue this harmful mining project on the lands of Iñupiat, ”said the executive director of the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, Siqiñiq Maupin, in a statement. “We know the real impacts on our bodies and our communities. We know that the industrialization of fossil fuels is an attack on our health and our food security. What oil companies seeking to exploit our native lands need to know is that indigenous groups across the country are united. We will continue, alongside our climate and human rights allies around the world, to protect the lands and waters that our ancestors protected for us. “

Tuesday was the deadline for attorneys for the Department of Justice and ConocoPhillips to appeal an August order from Alaska District Court Judge Sharon Gleason denying BLM Alaska approval in October. 2020 of the environmental impact study of the Willow master plan.

Gleason ruled that BLM officials erred, among other things, in not providing sufficient justification for their justification not to estimate the likely contribution of the project to foreign greenhouse gas emissions.

This was in part due to a 2020 Decision of the 9th Circuit that canceled the environmental review of another North Slope oil project approved by the Trump administration. In this case, the court ruled that the approval by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management of Hilcorp Energy’s Liberty offshore project was “counterintuitive”, in that the agency concluded that not developing the oil would lead to a loss of oil. increase in greenhouse gas emissions abroad.

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At $ 6 billion to reach first oil and up to $ 8 billion to fully develop, oil industry advocates see Willow as an infrastructure hub on the Northwest Slope that could spur other projects. tankers in Alaska’s largely undeveloped National Petroleum Reserve.

ConocoPhillips had targeted winter 2025-2026 for Willow’s first oil production, and estimated the project would generate up to 2,000 construction jobs over several years of development.

A spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips Alaska did not answer questions in time for this story.

Bridget Psarianos, senior lawyer for SILA and the coalition of environmental groups, said she was not taken by surprise that Home Office officials and ConocoPhillips, who intervened in the lawsuit, had not appealed.

“I think given the similarities to our case and the Liberty decision, which the 9th Circuit highlighted when we won our injunction in February, we would have been a little surprised if they had appealed to the 9th Circuit,” said Psarianos.

In February, the 9th Circuit ordered that fieldwork stop at Willow long before it began. ConocoPhillips had planned to open a gravel pit and start laying gravel for roads and platforms last winter before the decision. The appeals court then remitted the case to Gleason, who then issued its broader August ruling invalidating the environmental review.

Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz declined to comment on the decision not to appeal Gleason’s decision, but said BLM officials were determining their way forward on federal permits for Willow.

BLM’s initial environmental review and approval for Willow lasted just over two years. It’s unclear how long an additional review or an entirely new review would take, but it would likely be a multi-year process based on similar situations in the past.

Longtime Alaskan oil industry lawyer and analyst Brad Keithley said he believes the agency and the company may have chosen the quickest route to keep moving Willow forward. by not appealing. This is especially true if the Biden administration still supports the project, he added.

“If (the Biden administration) wants this to work, I think they can pull together the additional EIS in the short term. If they see this as an opportunity to stop development in the Arctic or to set a precedent that will apply to other projects – ANWR and elsewhere – then I think that’s what will lengthen it, ” Keithley said.

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In May, BLM’s lawyers filed briefs supporting Willow’s approval, which angered the same groups now praising the administration for withholding an appeal.

Psarianos said his clients want BLM to improve the public participation process, which has been disrupted by the onset of the pandemic, for any future consideration of Willow and look much more holistically at the potential consequences of the project.

“I think they really need to take a step back, collect some basic information and engage with the communities most affected by the project,” Psarianos said.

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