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Federal Judge Blocks Major Alaska Oil Project, Citing Environmental Impact

The Trans Alaska Pipeline near the midpoint of the 800-mile line, near Fairbanks, Alaska, May 31, 2018 (Yereth Rosen/Reuters)

A federal judge voided permits for a major Alaska oil project Wednesday, citing the government’s failure to evaluate its potential contributions to climate change, including how it might endanger polar bears.

Supported by both the Trump and Biden administrations, ConocoPhillips’s Willow project was dismissed in court by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason, an Obama appointee. In a written order, she argued that the Trump-era Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service incorrectly signed off on the initiative, without assessing its environmental burden, the Washington Post reported.

Oil has historically brought prosperity to the Alaskan economy, and the Willow plan was expected to yield job growth for the state. The project could produce more than 160,000 barrels of oil per day from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, west of Prudhoe Bay.

Several conservation groups and environmental activists sued the BLM to halt construction activities in November, claiming the agency did not adequately weigh the plan’s impact on wildlife. The plaintiffs secured a preliminary injunction from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in February after a lower court denied their petition.

Gleason said that the environmental impact statements the federal agencies’ drafted per regulation failed to meet the requirements outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act and the Environmental Protection Act, the Post confirmed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, in consultation with the Bureau of Land Management, had concluded upon review that the development project was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of polar bears or adversely modify the animals’ habitat. However, Gleason determined that this analysis was insufficient in explaining how the species would be protected from climate effects likely to be exacerbated by the project. The judge also ruled that the Bureau of Land Management improperly projected the plan’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and disregarded viable alternatives to the original blueprint.

“As to the errors found by the Court, they are serious,” Gleason wrote. “BLM also failed to adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives for the Willow Project — a process that is ‘the heart of the environmental impact statement.’”

Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy slammed the court’s decision as a job-killer and another step toward foreign energy dependence, according to the Anchorage Daily News. 

“Make no mistake, today’s ruling from a federal judge trying to shelve a major oil project on American soil does one thing: outsources production to dictatorships and terrorist organizations,” the governor said. “This is a horrible decision. We are giving America over to our enemies piece by piece. The Willow project would power America with 160,000 barrels a day, provide thousands of family-supporting jobs, and greatly benefit the people of Alaska.”

The ruling comes after President Biden’s recent plea to OPEC, the cartel of 13 oil-producing nations, and U.S. allies to produce more oil amid rising fuel costs, as the administration has curtailed domestic drilling to combat climate change. Shortly after assuming office, Biden shut down down the Keystone oil pipeline and imposed a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling leases, which critics argued have drastically reduced American oil supply, fueling price hikes.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned that high gasoline prices “risk harming the ongoing global recovery,” and that oil production pledges from OPEC+ countries were “simply not enough” to offset production caps established earlier in the pandemic.

While the U.S. is currently producing about 11.2 million barrels of oil per day, that number was 13 million barrels a day during the Trump administration, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.

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