US judge rejects Trump-era approval for giant Alaska oil project

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A federal judge on Wednesday rejected the Trump administration’s approvals for a large oil project planned on the North Slope of Alaska, saying the federal review was flawed and did not include mitigation measures for polar bears .

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage, in a 110-page decision, canceled permits for ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.

The Trump administration approved the project in late 2020 and the Biden administration defended the project in court.

Rebecca Boys, spokesperson for ConocoPhillips, said the company would review Gleason’s decision “and assess the options available regarding this project.”

Spokesmen for the US Bureau of Land Management and the Home Office said their agencies had made no comment. The BLM conducted the environmental review of the project which Gleason found to be defective.

Conservation groups and Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, described as a grassroots organization, had questioned the adequacy of the review process.

Karlin Itchoak, director of the Wilderness Society for Alaska, called the move “a step towards protecting public lands and the people who would be hardest hit by the BLM’s random green light to the Willow Project.”

In October last year, then-US Home Secretary David Bernhardt signed the government decision report that called on ConocoPhillips to establish up to three drilling sites, processing facilities associated and gravel roads and pipelines on the north slope.

Two more drilling sites and additional roads and pipelines proposed by ConocoPhillips could be considered at a later stage, the Home Office said at the time.

Bernhardt had said the decision would make a “significant contribution to keeping oil flowing” through the trans-Alaska pipeline system “decades into the future” and generate revenue. The Bureau of Land Management said the project could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil per day with around 590 million barrels over 30 years.

More than 1,000 jobs were expected during peak construction and more than 400 jobs during operations, the agency director said at the time.

Gleason said the land management agency’s exclusion of foreign greenhouse gas emissions from its environmental review was “arbitrary and capricious.”

It also ruled that the agency had acted against the law as it developed its “alternatives analysis based on the idea that ConocoPhillips has the right to extract all oil and gas possible on its leases” .

Gleason canceled a US Fish and Wildlife Service report for lack of details on mitigation measures for polar bears. The agency concluded that the project “was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of polar bears and would likely not result in adverse alteration of polar bear critical habitat,” according to the decision.

The Bureau of Land Management’s reliance on that report was also flawed, Gleason said as he referred the matter to the appropriate agencies for action.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, director of the Alaska Wildlife Defenders program, called the decision a “victory for our climate, for endangered species like polar bears and for local residents whose concerns have been ignored.” She urged the Biden administration to consider alternatives to the project.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a statement, said the decision “by a federal judge trying to suspend a major oil project on American soil does one thing: outsource production to dictatorships and terrorist organizations.”

He called the decision “horrible”.

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