Biden administration backs Willow oil project in Alaska’s Arctic

The project's approvals from the outgoing Trump administration are now the subject of a legal battle.

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U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks after touring Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan on May 18, 2021. (Leah Millis / Reuters File Photo)

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration defended on Wednesday a proposed ConocoPhillips oil development in Alaska’s Arctic, backing the drilling project which was approved under the administration of former President Donald Trump.

“A Wednesday filing by the U.S. Department of Justice continues to defend a 2020 Record of Decision for the Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (NPR-A)” a spokesman of the U.S. Interior Department said in an email.

In February, an appeals court blocked construction of ConocoPhillips’ $2 billion-plus Willow crude oil project in Alaska. Wednesday’s development comes even as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland had opposed the project last year when she was a member of Congress.

[Appeals court halts construction at ConocoPhillips’ Willow project in Alaska’s Arctic]

The Trump administration approved the Willow development plan in October. Permits to mine for gravel and build roads were issued on the morning of Jan. 20, just before Biden was sworn in as the nation’s 46th president.

The Willow Project would be the westernmost on Alaska’s Arctic North Slope — though a plan approved by the outgoing Trump administration that vastly expanded oil and gas drilling in the reserve could eventually allow exploration even further to the west, if that plan remains in place.

A sign points on the North Slope points the way to the two wells, Tinmiaq 2 and 6, that are part of ConocoPhillips Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Judy Patrick / ConocoPhillips)

Environmental groups had sued over the Willow approval, making the argument that the government failed to take into account the impact that drilling would have on fragile wildlife.

“The filing (on Wednesday) maintains that the decision complied with NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) standards in place at the time, and that the plaintiffs did not challenge the Record of Decision within the time limitations associated with environmental review for projects in the NPR-A”, according to the statement shared by a Department of Interior spokesman.

[Oil development in Alaska’s Arctic remains in limbo]

The project has been pushed by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, who along with another Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, discussed the oil project during a meeting with Biden on Monday, according to Politico.

Murkowski said the engagement with the Biden administration officials since that meeting was “very productive.”

Willow holds 590 million barrels of recoverable oil and could produce up to 160,000 barrels per day as soon as 2024, according to ConocoPhillips’ previous estimates.