(CN) — A federal judge on Thursday threw out two lawsuits by environmentalist groups that sought to overturn the Biden administration's approval of ConocoPhillips's massive oil and gas drilling Willow project in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage dismissed the claims by the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and by the Center for Biological Diversity, among other plaintiffs, that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately consider alternatives to the project and the harm to polar bears in their evaluation.
"ConocoPhillips, as the lessee, has the right and the responsibility to fully develop its oil and gas leases in the NPR-A subject to reasonable restrictions and mitigation measures imposed by the federal government," Gleason said. "The alternatives that BLM analyzed are fully consistent with an interpretation of the purpose and need statement that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of the lessee."
In that regard, the judge said, the plaintiffs' argument that the bureau should also have considered alternatives that would have allowed ConocoPhillips to produce only "some oil" from its leases was inconsistent with Congress's intent when it tasked the Interior Department with competitive leasing of oil and gas rights in the reserve.
The judge also rejected the plaintiffs' claims that Fish and Wildlife didn't do a thorough enough analysis of the harms to polar bears when it concluded that the risks to both denning and transient bears was minimal. The service's conclusions that Willow’s disturbances would not create a likelihood of injury to non-denning polar bears was within the bounds of reasoned decision making, Gleason said.
“This is really hard news, and it again shows that the oil and gas industry exerts incredible power over those whose health and food are most impacted and who will most experience the climate harm and disaster this project will flame,” said Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic.
Gleason in April had denied the environmentalists' bid for a preliminary injunction to prevent ConocoPhillips from starting construction on Willow.
The Biden administration's approval of the largest proposed oil drilling project on U.S. public land in decades won a rare round of applause from right-wing members of Congress. According to ConocoPhillips, the Willow project can produce about 180,000 barrels of oil per day once it is at its peak.
The Interior Department has sought to frame its decision as a compromise on what could have been an even larger drilling project. By rejecting two of the five sites that ConocoPhillips had proposed, the government says it reduced the effort’s total footprint by 40% and lessened its overall harm to the environment.
The same environmentalist groups had successfully blocked the Bureau of Land Management's previous approval of the project under the Trump administration. The same judge who dismissed their latest claims Thursday, had in 2021 vacated the bureau’s go-ahead of the Willow project under the National Environmental Policy Act and told it to redo its analysis. She also vacated Fish and Wildlife's biological opinion at the time.
The 22.8-million acre Alaska reserve, about the size of Indiana, was created in 1923 as a petroleum reserve for the U.S. Navy, and it is the largest single public land unit in the U.S. A number of areas within the reserve have since been designated for maximum protection because of their ecological importance.
The Reserve provides rich habitat for caribou, grizzly and polar bears, wolves, and a range of migratory birds and waterfowl, the environmental groups said in the lawsuit. It is also home to the Western Arctic and Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herds, which provide key subsistence resources to numerous communities in the Reserve and across northwest Alaska.Follow @edpettersson
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