The Biden Administration Rethinks its Approach to Drilling on Public Lands in Alaska, Soliciting Further Review

The Bureau of Land Management is inviting public input on ConocoPhillips’ Willow project on the North Slope, following a court reversal on leases it approved last year in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pipelines extend across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska, 36 miles from the Willow Master Development Plan located in the National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska's North Slope. Credit: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Pipelines extend across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska, 36 miles from the Willow Master Development Plan located in the National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska's North Slope. Credit: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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The Biden administration will give the public a new opportunity to weigh in on a major oil project proposed in the Alaskan Arctic, handing a victory to environmental groups that have opposed the development.

In an announcement late Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management said it would solicit comments about the Willow project, which would pump about 590 million barrels of oil over 30 years from a rapidly-warming ecosystem on Alaska’s North Slope.

The ConocoPhillips project was approved in the final months of the Trump administration, but its future was thrown into doubt after a federal court in Alaska vacated the approval last year and sent the project back to the BLM for further environmental review. The Biden administration initially supported the project by defending it in court, but then declined to appeal last year’s ruling.

Climate advocates had called on the BLM to open a public “scoping period” as part of the court-ordered review of Willow, and they said Thursday’s announcement was a sign that the Biden administration may be taking their concerns seriously.

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“The agency is going to start from the very beginning to assess the project,” said Layla Hughes, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit that represented Indigenous and climate advocates in one of two lawsuits challenging the project that led to last year’s court ruling.

Hughes and other advocates had described Willow as a major test for the Biden administration’s climate policy, and had expressed concern that the BLM was conducting a narrow review in response to the court ruling, rather than taking a broader look at environmental and climate impacts. Advocates argue that such a review would show that the project should not proceed at all, given the urgency of limiting global warming and protecting a melting Arctic.

With Thursday’s announcement, Hughes said, “the agency is basically signaling its intent to meaningfully assess the project. Whether or not it does, we’ll have to see.”

Michelle Van Der Linden, the bureau’s acting press secretary, said in an emailed statement that it had opened the process to public input to help inform the draft supplemental environmental impact statement it is preparing, and that “we will have a formal review and comment opportunity, including public meetings, following the release of the draft.” The BLM said that release would come sometime this spring.

Rebecca Boys, a spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips, said the company “remains committed to Willow as the next significant North Slope project, and we encourage BLM to proceed in a manner that will minimize additional delay.”

Construction of the Willow project would erect pipelines, roads, a processing facility and up to 250 wells in a section of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a 23 million-acre parcel on the North Slope that is managed by the federal government and partially open to oil development.

The announcement of the scoping period, which will run through Mar. 9, comes one week after a federal district court struck down an offshore oil and gas lease sale that the Biden administration held last year. The two cases hinged on the same central argument: that the government had failed to fully account for the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from drilling on public lands.

Taken together, the rulings cut to the heart of what advocates say is cognitive dissonance in the Biden administration’s climate and energy policies, pursuing an ambitious climate agenda in Congress and internationally, even as it continues to allow fossil fuel development on public lands.

As a candidate for president, Joe Biden pledged to end new oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters, and his administration placed a temporary pause on leasing soon after he took office. But that moratorium was struck down by a federal court last year, and the administration responded by issuing the largest offshore lease sale in history. The administration has also continued approving new oil and gas permits at a rapid pace.

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But this series of court rulings—on the offshore lease sale, the Willow Project, and on a separate Alaska project—have effectively said the administration can no longer ignore the link between individual fossil fuel developments and their impact on the global climate picture.

After the ruling on the offshore lease sale last week, an Interior Department spokeswoman said the administration had identified “serious deficiencies” in the oil and gas program and needed to make “significant and long overdue” reforms. Advocates are hoping those comments, and the decision now to open the Willow project to public input, are a signal it may change course. 

“I think the administration is acknowledging the disconnect between its obligations to protect our public lands and its current program of oil and gas leasing and development,” Hughes said.