Biden administration backs Alaska oil project approved under Trump

The Willow project, consisting of five wells that collectively could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil a day, would be one of the first major new oil projects in Alaska in years. The development would include a new gravel mine, airstrip, more than 570 miles of ice roads and nearly 320 miles of pipeline to the Alaskan landscape. The Justice Department, in a court filing with the U.S. District Court of Alaska, defended the Trump-era decision to allow the project against environmental advocacy groups’ allegations that Interior had failed to adequately assess the project’s environmental impacts.

Both Alaska Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Murkowski discussed the project during an Oval Office meeting with Biden on Monday. Sullivan said he left behind information on the project and Biden promised to get back to him shortly.

“I talked extensively with the president on the Willow project,” Sullivan told POLITICO on Wednesday. “I told him ‘It hasn’t been controversial until you guys put a pause on it.’”

Murkowski told POLITICO the engagement with the Biden administration officials since that meeting was “very productive” — a phrase she repeated three times for emphasis.

Biden was receptive to the project, Murkowski said, and she said she told him the Alaska lawmakers had briefed “just about everyone in your Cabinet and any senior adviser who would listen.”

In a court filing late Wednesday, the Biden administration argued those challenging the approval were “cherry-picking the records” of federal agencies involved in the decision-making process and urged that their “claims should be rejected.”

“In fact, the agencies took a hard look at the Willow Project’s impacts, including impacts from the alternative proposed water crossings and impacts from building gravel roads and other infrastructure,” the government lawyers wrote in the filing. “The analysis did not suffer for lack of specific project information.”

The administration’s actions in court are also notable since Haaland had joined four House Democratic colleagues in a May 2020 letter urging the Trump administration to “suspend any further action” on the project, warning of “harmful impacts that this development could have on the unique ecological and subsistence values found in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (Reserve).”

The state of Alaska had asked to intervene in the case in February after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that ConocoPhillips must stop winter work on the site.