Energy & Environment

Federal judge rules against Trump-era approval of Alaska drilling project

A federal judge in Alaska ruled against the Trump administration’s approval of a massive oil drilling project in the state, arguing that the Interior Department did not adequately measure the true environmental impact the project could pose. 

In her opinion, Judge Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska faulted the department’s Bureau of Land Management environmental assessment of the ConocoPhillips’s Willow project, which was granted approval under former President Trump and was subsequently backed by the Biden administration

Gleason argued that the bureau’s decision to exclude levels of greenhouse gas emissions in its environmental impact report was “arbitrary and capricious.” 

The Obama-appointed judge also said that the agency acted on the position that “ConocoPhillips had the right to extract all possible oil and gas from its leases” and also did not specify in its environmental analysis how polar bears would be impacted by the project. 

The Trump administration in October finalized plans for the Willow project despite widespread pushback from environmental activists, allowing ConocoPhillips to extract about 100,000 barrels per day from Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. 

Under the project, the company would be able to produce up to 590 million total barrels over a 30-year period. 

The Biden administration backed the project in May, writing in a court filing that environmental and indigenous groups challenging the project in court were “cherry-picking” federal agency records to inaccurately claim that the analysis violated environmental laws.

Bridget Psarianos, a staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, which represented six plaintiffs in the case, told The Washington Post that she and her clients were “just celebrating that there’s not going to be any Willow construction this winter.” 

“The project can’t move forward without a significant amount of redoing,” she said, adding that she would like the Biden administration to use Wednesday’s ruling as an “opportunity to actually engage in a process that complies with the law and honors the campaign promises of making science-based decisions and protecting biodiversity and taking the concerns of Indigenous populations seriously.”

Rebecca Boys, a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips, told the Post that the oil company would “review the decision and evaluate the options available regarding this project.”

While the Interior Department initially declined to comment when contacted by The Hill, a spokesperson said on Thursday that the “district court identified a number of issues in the environmental reviews and approvals issued in 2020.”

“The Interior Department is analyzing the decision,” the spokesperson added in a statement.

–Updated on August 19 at 12:25 p.m.

Tags Alaska Donald Trump Environmental impact assessment oil drilling The Washington Post Trump Administration
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