Federal Judge Throws Out Permits for Major Alaska Drilling Project

Image: Bureau of Land Management, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Last week a federal judge threw out permits for a significant Alaska drilling project granted under Trump and legally backed by the Biden administration. The project isn’t dead yet, and ConocoPhillips says it will be evaluating its options to continue the operation. Still, Indigenous communities and environmental groups are celebrating the decision. “Today’s court win recognizes that our land and our people deserve dignity and a pursuit of greater meaning,” said Siqiñiq Maupin, the executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA).

Why This Matters: Despite the nation’s Paris Agreement goals to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the project would have produced 100,000 barrels of crude oil each day for the next 30 years, potentially producing more than 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

Environmental groups allege that the project goes against these goals and that protecting the Arctic is imperative in the fight against climate change, given that the region is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world. Protecting the Arctic from drilling protects Indigenous communities, crucial carbon sinks, endangered wildlife, and puts the nation one step closer to protecting 30% of all lands and waters by 2030.

Drill Decision: Judge Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska sided with Indigenous and environmental groups who had sued the Trump administration, alleging that the federal government had failed to evaluate the ecological impacts of the project. Gleason ruled that the permit issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service was not protective enough of polar bears and that the Bureau of Land Management had fallen short of its obligation to give “maximum protections” to the Teshekpuk Lake special area. The area encompasses the calving grounds of the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, which SILA relies on.

However, some worry that the decision may not only have environmental implications but political ones as well. The Biden administration’s decision to back the project, called Willow, was instrumental in building a tenuous alliance between the Biden administration and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (R). Since then, Murkowski has played a significant role in rallying Republican support for President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, which passed the Senate earlier this month. Following Gleason’s ruling, Murkowski said in a statement, “This District Court Order vacating key approvals and permits for Willow is just plain wrong. Although this is a setback for Willow, it is not the end. Even the Biden administration has come to understand what Alaskans have always known—that the Willow Project must move forward.”

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