A federal judge in the state of Alaska has voided permits for a ConocoPhillips' project on federal land located on the state’s North Slope, leaving the future of the programme in doubt.
The US operator discovered the Willow oil play in the north-east section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in 2017.
ConocoPhillips the following year said it believed between 400 million and 750 million barrels of oil equivalent were in the play, and that Willow could produce as much as 100,000 barrels per day of oil.
The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) during the Trump administration approved permitting of the project. Meanwhile, the Biden administration, in spite of other moves to limit oil and gas-related activities on federal lands, defended issuing of the permits.
The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups filed suit against the project in November 2020, claiming the BLM failed to take into full account the damage the Willow project would have on regional wildlife and the environment.
In an 18 August decision, US District Court Judge Sharon Gleason threw out the permits - agreeing the bureau's analysis of the project was faulty.
“BLM’s exclusion of foreign greenhouse gas emissions in its alternatives analysis in the (environmental impact statement) was arbitrary and capricious,” said Gleason, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama.
“BLM acted contrary to law insofar as it developed its alternatives analysis based on the view that ConocoPhillips had the right to extract all possible oil and gas from its leases.”
The environmental groups, which brought the case, said the decision should be a message to the Biden administration that Arctic drilling is a mistake.
“This is a huge victory for our climate and polar bears,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“This project never should have been approved and it can’t be defended. If President Biden is serious about addressing the climate crisis, he has to reject any further attempts to move this project forward and prohibit all new oil and gas activity in the Arctic.”
ConocoPhillips indicated in a brief statement to Upstream that it has yet to make a decision on how to proceed in the wake of the decision.
“ConocoPhillips will review the decision and evaluate the options available regarding this project,” spokesman Dennis Nuss said.
Should the operator decide to appeal the decision, it will have one prominent backer: Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, who scorched Gleason’s ruling in a statement.
“Make no mistake, [the] ruling from a federal judge trying to shelve a major oil project on American soil does one thing – outsources production to dictatorships and terrorist organisations,” said Dunleavy, a Republican.
“This is a horrible decision. We are giving America over to our enemies piece by piece. The Willow project would power America with 160,000 barrels a day, provide thousands of family-supporting jobs and greatly benefit the people of Alaska.”