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Conservation Groups Blast Biden Support of Trump Oil-Drilling Project in Alaska

The Willow project involves drilling 250 wells to extract oil in a 23 million-acre Alaska reserve. The Biden administration --- which has halted new oil and gas leases on federal land --- gave the Trump-era project the green light in court this week.

(CN) --- President Joe Biden’s support this week of an Alaska oil-drilling project given the green light by the Trump administration at the eleventh hour of his presidency undermines Biden’s pledge to address climate change, conservation advocates say.

The Justice Department filed a legal brief Wednesday defending Trump Bureau of Land Management’s October 2020 approval of the Willow Master Development Plan oil and gas project in Alaska’s Western Arctic.

The Willow project calls for drilling up to 250 wells and building and maintaining a processing facility, hundreds of miles of ice roads and pipelines, one or two airstrips and a gravel mine in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The 23 million-acre reserve is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States and is home to polar bears, musk oxen, caribou and millions of migratory birds.

The Center for Biological Diversity and its conservation allies sued the Bureau of Land Management this past December to halt the project, which would require developer ConocoPhillips remediate the land due to climate change impacts that have already altered the Alaskan landscape.

ConocoPhillips plans to use giant chillers to refreeze thawing permafrost to help ensure a solid drilling surface, for example.

Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. the past 60 years resulting in sea level rise, sea-ice melt and permafrost thaw.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Alaska native resident of the Nuiqsut village of about 500 residents, told Courthouse News: “We’ve got a lot of concerns, we have already faced tremendous change.”

Ahtuangaruak said they have experienced torrential out-of-season rains in November and July, which affected fishing and drowned out an eagle nest.

“We’re not having insect booms when the baby birds are born, which is important for them to survive,” Ahtuangaruak said.

She added: “It doesn’t just affect us --- it affects the areas where the birds should be returning.”

And when Ahtuangaruak put out fishing nets, she said the water temperature was 70 degrees and the fish caught in the nets had abnormalities.

“We don’t know if it's issues due to contaminants or climate change. But we can sure say we are very concerned with what is happening to our environment, our food and to our future generations,” Ahtuangaruak said.

Ahtuangaruak’s concerns were echoed in the suit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace seeking to block the Willow project based on claims the final environmental impact statement and opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason, a Barack Obama appointee, temporarily halted construction on the project this past February, finding the conservation groups are likely to succeed on their claim the government failed to properly estimate global greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an estimated 590 million barrels of oil are expected to be extracted during the life of the project, which would result in 280 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

But in the 70-page brief filed Wednesday in the District of Alaska, Justice Department attorney Caitlin Cipicchio said the complaints are time-barred as to NEPA, as the conservation groups failed to file them within 60 days of the Aug. 14, 2020, Federal Register notice of availability for the Willow project.

As for the BLM’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project, even though the federal government relied on the same modeling approach recently rejected by the Ninth Circuit, “BLM’s decision to approve the Willow project is a different choice, based on a different record," Cipicchio wrote.

“BLM’s approach forecasted a plausible result and provided the decision maker an understanding of the GHG emissions expected to be associated with the Willow Project from the no-action alternative. Thus, the Willow EIS provided what is required under NEPA, a reasonable analysis of environmental impacts across alternatives,” Cipicchio wrote.

BLM estimates direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions from the Willow project to be 260,000 tons --- significantly less than estimates by the conservation groups.

Center for Biological Diversity attorney Kristen Monsell said in a statement it was “disappointing” to see the Biden administration support the project.

“President Biden promised climate action, and our climate can’t afford more huge new oil-drilling projects. Conoco’s plan to refreeze melting permafrost in hopes of having a solid drilling surface highlights the ridiculousness of drilling in the Arctic. It’s one of many reasons why this project should never have been approved,” Monsell said.

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