Biden administration lets stand a judgment thwarting Willow, a ConocoPhillips drilling project in Arctic

Pipelines stretch toward the horizon in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Conservation groups are cheering the Biden administration’s decision not to appeal a judgment that reversed approval for Willow, the ConocoPhillips’ plan to develop five drilling sites in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled in August that the Trump administration didn’t adequately consider greenhouse gas emissions or the impact on polar bears when it approved the plan.

The Biden administration initially defended the Willow approval, but Tuesday was the deadline for an appeal and the government didn’t file one. Nor did ConocoPhillips.

Jeremy Lieb, an attorney in the Anchorage office of Earthjustice, said Willow doesn’t fit with the Biden administration’s climate goals.

“We’re pleased to see that the administration has recognized that at this point and is not continuing to defend the plan in court on appeal,” he said.

Willow is a big priority for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The Biden administration’s initial defense of the project was seen as an overture to her, as she is one of the few Senate Republicans who might vote for some of Biden’s priorities.

Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz didn’t say why the government didn’t file an appeal.

“The matter has now been remanded to the BLM,” she said in an email. “In light of the court’s decision, we are reviewing to determine next steps.”

If the Bureau of Land Management decides to do another environmental review to comply with the judge’s order, environmental groups hope the agency scraps the project or imposes more restrictions.

A ConocoPhillips spokeswoman says the company remains committed to the project.

“ConocoPhillips is not appealing the court’s earlier decision because we believe the best path forward is to engage directly with the relevant agencies to address the matters described in the decision,” she said by email Thursday.

Alaska Public Media

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