Federal brief supports BLM on Willow; ROD legally sufficient
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A May 26 brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice said plaintiffs who sued to stop the Willow development “seek to stop the extraction of resources from the Petroleum Reserve by cherry-picking the records of BLM, the Service, and the Corps, to suggest that the federal agencies’ analyses violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), Clean Water Act (“CWA”), and Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). To the contrary, Federal Defendants complied with the requirements of these statutes and other applicable legal requirements, and Plaintiffs’ claims should be rejected.”
DOJ said in its conclusion that the Federal District Court should deny the motion by plaintiffs for summary judgment, and grant summary judgment in favor of the federal defendants in the case.
At issue is the Willow Master Development Plan, approved by the Bureau of Land Management in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
DOI reviewIn a related matter, the Department of the Interior has finished its review of the record of decision for the Willow Master Development Plan, approved in October, and found “the ROD legally sufficient,” Alaska’s congressional delegation said in a May 27 release.
They said the Biden administration found the ROD consistent with the administration’s executive orders on addressing climate change.
In a June 1 statement, ConocoPhillips Alaska said it understands the Department of the Interior’s review of the Willow Master Development Plan is now complete.
“Although the final decision on the Willow Project is still pending, clearing the DOI review represents a very significant milestone for this project,” Erec Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, said in the company’s statement.
He thanked Alaska’s congressional delegation “for their tremendous efforts in advocating for the Willow Project and working with the Biden administration to achieve this favorable outcome on the review.”
He also cited coordinated support from the Alaska Native regional corporations, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the VOICE of the Arctic Inupiat and several village councils for work that “has had a significant impact on the thoroughness of the permitting process and is appreciated.”
100,000 bpdWillow, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska west of Greater Mooses Tooth, is projected to have peak production of more than 100,000 barrels per day of oil from a resource discovered at the Tinmiaq 2 and Tinmiaq 6 wells in early 2016, and estimated, ConocoPhillips Alaska said in an online project description, to have from 450 million to 800 million barrels of oil equivalent in place, making it the largest North Slope development since Alpine in the late 1990s.
The project includes a standalone production facility which, the company said, would have a processing capacity of up to 200,000 bpd, with first oil currently planned for 2026.
Congressional delegationIn a joint statement Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Congressman Dan Young, all Republicans, said progress on the project follows weeks of advocacy and outreach to members of the Biden administration, including President Joe Biden.
Murkowski said the state’s relationship with the new administration “got off to a rough start after the President’s sweep of a pen called for reviews - and potential halts - to a number of responsible resource projects.”
She said she has been working to educate the new administration on the importance of Willow for Alaska’s economy, North Slope communities and thousands employed in the region, and said the administration found, through careful review, “that the Willow project went through a rigorous, comprehensive permitting process and can move forward because it is being held to the highest environmental and labor standards in the world.”
Murkowski said she brought the significance of the project to the attention of President Biden and senior White House officials “on the first day of the new administration,” and during confirmation hearings “pressed now Interior Secretary Haaland to defend the Record of Decision for the Willow project now being litigated in courts.”
Sullivan said he has stressed to the administration, including President Biden, that Willow “is one of the most environmentally responsible and rigorous energy projects in our country.” The project will create thousands of direct and indirect jobs in Alaska “and provide opportunities and billions of dollars in revenues for our state and indigenous communities on the North Slope.”
Sullivan said the project “will produce American energy with the highest environmental standards at a time when we’re importing far too much from our adversaries, like Russia.”
He called Willow a “once-in-a-generation energy development” and said he appreciated President Biden and Secretary Haaland listening and defending the project.
“I also want to commend the numerous Alaskans and Alaska Native leaders - especially those who live within NPR-A and on the North Slope - for weighing in with the secretary and making the case for Willow,” Sullivan said, adding that he remains “deeply concerned about some of the administration’s remaining policies that are still targeting Alaska and our workers.”
Young called it “a good day for Alaska, our energy economy, and American energy independence,” and thanked the administration, “particularly my friend, Secretary Deb Haaland, for reaching what Alaskans know to be the right conclusion: the Willow Project is legally defensible and holds great potential for our state.”
“Secretary Haaland is my friend, and while we do not always see eye to eye, I appreciate that she always listens to the Alaskan perspective with an open mind,” Young said.
He also noted that “countless individuals” in BLM “worked hard to ensure a thorough environmental review.”
North SlopeA May 27 statement from the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. said the May 26 brief, “maintaining that the Record of Decision for the Willow Project complied with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) standards, is certainly encouraging news for the region we represent.” ASRC said the project, in the northeast portion of NPR-A, “will provide not only much-needed jobs for our people, but also tax revenue to support our schools, health clinics and other infrastructure and public services.”
On April 26 the mayors of three North Slope cities in NPR-A, Atqasuk, Utqiagvik and Wainwright, wrote jointly to Haaland, congratulating her on her confirmation as the first indigenous woman selected to head the Department of the Interior and expressing concern over policies of the Biden administration which, they said, “can have a greater impact on our communities than changes to our environment will have in the long-term by significantly reducing our local economy, without allowing time or resources to integrate new technologies and diversity.”
The three, Mayor Doug Whiteman of Atqasuk, Mayor Fannie Suvlu of Utqiagvik and Mayor John Hopson Jr. of Wainwright, said the North Slope Borough, the home-rule government formed in 1972 for the North Slope, spends some $400 million a year to maintain infrastructure, schools, manage wildlife and administer the school system, with more than 95% of that $400 million coming from property tax on oil and gas infrastructure within the borough.
They said policies which would interfere with that source of income “would be a sham and a taking - and completely at odds with the Biden Administrations alleged dedication to consultation and equality.”
The three city councils passed individual resolutions supporting NPR-A leasing and development, particularly projects like Willow, the mayors said.
They said the administration’s executive and secretarial orders “significantly undermine our participation in the processes, and we are appalled that your agency, Madam Secretary, is focused more on the environment than on our people. This has long been our experience with the environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGO’s) who have worked hard to erase us from our own homeland.”
The mayors said SO 3352 (issued April 16) “could cancel our contributions as a region to the 2020 NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan-Environmental Impact State (IAP-EIS). This would be a breach of our long-standing relationship with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who we have worked with through multiple IAP-EIS’s since the 1999 NPR-A IAP-EIS, over the course of several administrations and have developed a trust in their ability to listen to us as significant stakeholders in the region.”
The mayors said while the department is raising questions “about the process and science of the BLM, we can tell you, having participated in NEPA with the BLM for over 20 years, we did not see any changes, short-cuts, or poor science performed by the BLM in the 2020 NPR-A IAP-EIS and to imply there was undercuts out experience and undercuts your agency.”
The mayors said they only change they have seen over time “is the number of embedded policy personnel in the DOI that have fought us, as indigenous people, for many years.”
Opposing viewIn a May 27 statement, Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said, “President Biden’s early executive actions suggested a new era of bold and visionary federal leadership in fighting climate change and prioritizing environmental justice,” and said the organization stands behind what the administration is doing to meet those goals.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “the decision to defend a Trump-era project that ignored the concerns of local Indigenous communities and failed to adequately address risks to our climate future is just incredibly disappointing and a decision we will continue to fight.”
- KRISTEN NELSON