Interior Dept. files brief defending Willow project review

  • The Doyon Drilling Rig 141 is seen working at the ConocoPhillips Willow prospect on the eastern edge of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Photo/Judy Patrick/ConocoPhillips)

Attorneys for the Interior Department argue in a court brief filed late Wednesday that conservation and Alaska Native groups filed suits to stop ConocoPhillips’ $6 billion Willow oil project too late and the agency sufficiently accounted for the greenhouse gas emissions from the development in its environmental review.

The complaints filed in federal Alaska District Court late last year violate the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, which limits the time to challenge the environmental impact statement, or EIS, for a project in federal petroleum reserves to 60 days after the final EIS is published, the government contends in its court motion.

The Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management and other Interior officials under the outgoing Trump administration in mid-November and a coalition of conservation organizations filed a similar complaint in late December. The Willow Project EIS was published in the federal Register Aug. 14, Interior’s attorneys note, adding that Judge Sharon Gleason has already exhibited a great degree of skepticism towards the plaintiffs claims on the issue.

The groups argue that specific language in an amendment to the NPRPA stating the time limit applies to reviews “concerning oil and gas leasing,” meaning just least sale and land planning reviews for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska where Willow is located.

Gleason, who is handling both cases, wrote in a Feb. 1 order denying a preliminary injunction motion to stop ConocoPhillips from opening a gravel quarry for early project construction that “Plaintiffs’ (National Environmental Policy Act) claims are likely time barred” and to that point had “not demonstrated ‘serious questions going to the merits’ with respect to their NEPA challenges.”

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a preliminary injunction on appeal several weeks later, stopping ConocoPhillips’ work for the season at Willow until the merits of the case could be more closely examined.

Federal attorneys also insist in the 70-page response brief that the allegation BLM officials “used the same modeling approach” when evaluating greenhouse gas emissions from Willow as was recently shot down by the 9th Circuit in a different case is not a fair comparison of the situations.

Not only does the Willow EIS state that downstream, lifecycle emissions projections from foreign countries as a result of the project could not be reliably made because of a lack of important data, according to the brief, BLM officials reached a more logical conclusion regarding project emissions than Bureau of Ocean Energy Management officials did in regards to Hilcorp’s offshore Liberty oil project.

“BLM’s analysis of lifecycle GHG emissions associated with the Willow project does not suffer from the flaws identified by the court in Liberty,” the brief states. “As that court explained ‘BOEM’s conclusion that not drilling will result in more carbon emissions than drilling is counterintuitive.’”

As currently proposed, the Willow master development plan calls for the eventual construction of five drill sites stretching north-south over approximately 20 miles in the northeast corner of the federal petroleum reserve. ConocoPhillips also has two other nearby developments in the NPR-A but the Willow project would be several times larger than the single-drill site Greater Mooses Tooth-1 and 2 projects extending from the Alpine field.

Full build-out of Willow is estimated at a cost of up to $6 billion, according to the company, with first oil during the 2025-26 winter. The project’s oil production is expected to approach 160,000 barrels per day at its peak. Overall, the project is expected to produce about 590 million barrels over 30 years.

ConocoPhillips Alaska representatives have said it’s too early to tell what, if any impact the work stoppage early this year will have on the overall development schedule for Willow.

The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation lauded the court filing as confirmation the Biden administration after a formal policy review would back the environmental conclusions made in favor of Willow under President Trump in a joint Thursday press call.

Rep. Don Young thanked Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — a former New Mexico congresswoman and friend of Young’s — and said she called the delegation members in advance of the court filing.

“This week has been a good week,” Young said, also referencing the legislation to re-open Alaska’s cruise industry Biden signed Monday.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it was a good sign for Alaska’s economy, as Willow is expected to generate 2,000 jobs during construction and roughly $10 billion in government revenue over its production period.

“It is a recognition of the value of the resource that we have within the NPR-A and the potential for jobs and revenues that we’re talking about,” Murkowski said.

Both, along with Sen. Dan Sullivan, said they had been pressing administration officials — including the president on Monday — to support Willow. They emphasized in the press call that Willow was discovered and evaluated under the NPR-A land-use plan approved by the Obama-Biden administration in 2013.

“Restricting the production of American energy fundamentally undermines our national security interests. We’ve been making that argument to everyone who will listen,” Sullivan said. “Some members of the Biden administration agree with that and I think that’s why we were able to gain traction on this.”

ConocoPhillips Alaska leaders thanked the delegation for their advocacy in an emailed statement and said they believe the Willow EIS satisfies all legal requirements.

Bridget Psarianos, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska representing the plaintiffs wrote via email that it is surprising the Biden administration would defend a process that the 9th Circuit already found to have “serious legal issues” and a project on the scale of Willow and in proximity to the Village of Nuiqsut was not contemplated when the 2013 land-use plan was approved.

“The point here is the Trump administration broke multiple laws in its approval process,” Psarianos wrote. “We’d hoped this administration’s commitment to science-based decision making, environmental justice, and addressing the climate crisis would have caused them to take a closer look, rather than carry a bad decision forward to appease ConocoPhillips.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/28/2021 - 1:55pm