Welcome Silence: Biden Administration Passes on ConocoPhillips Alaskan Drilling Appeal

October 26, 2021
Aerial view of National Petroleum Reserve in AlaskaFlickr/BLM Alaska
Derrick Z. Jackson
Fellow

In a victory that puts climate science and Indigenous voices over Big Oil, the Biden administration declined to appeal revoked permits for ConocoPhillips to drill in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. The fossil-fueled Trump administration had hastily approved the permits for this plan, known as the Willow project, and the Biden administration had originally backed them despite its net-zero pledges on global warming emissions, possibly to curry centrist support for other legislation on Capitol Hill.

But two months ago, federal district judge Sharon Gleason threw out the permits. She said the Bureau of Land Management and the US Fish and Wildlife Service had made “serious” errors and exclusions regarding the impact of the half-billion-barrel project on greenhouse gas emissions and endangered polar bears. The exclusions were so glaring that they no doubt contributed to the administration’s decision to let last week’s deadline for an appeal pass with no action.

ConocoPhillips Willow Project paused–for now

The decision was hailed by Siqiñiq Maupin, co-founder of the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, a plaintiff seeking to block the project. “We know that fossil fuel industrialization is an attack on our health and food security,” Maupin told the Anchorage Daily News. “What oil corporations seeking to exploit our homelands need to know is that Indigenous groups around the country are united.”

United they will have to stay, because ConocoPhillips says this is not the end of the road for their Willow project, which would require up to 575 miles of ice roads over ecologically sensitive areas. The company also did not appeal the ruling, saying it will try instead to resolve the issues cited by the court directly with the federal government. ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Rebecca Boys told the Daily News that the company believes the project still promises “extensive benefit” in employment, energy and revenue. But the science is clear. Any such promised benefits pale in comparison with the UN International Panel on Climate Change’s dire warning that the world must slash global warming emissions on an “immediate, rapid and large” scale to keep planetary temperatures under control—not to mention trying to forestall the rapid melting of Alaska’s sea ice and the thawing of its permafrost.

On the eve of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, the Biden administration’s new silence on the ConocoPhillips Willow project is a welcome first step toward keeping its promise to fight climate change.