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Federal court blocks construction of controversial Alaska oil project

Federal court blocks construction of controversial Alaska oil project
ConocoPhillips, Alaska's largest producer of crude oil, is seeking to build a oil and gas project that if allowed to go through is expected to produce more than 500 million barrels during its 30-year lifespan. Photo courtesy of ConocoPhillips/Website

Aug. 19 (UPI) -- A federal judge in Alaska has vacated construction permits for a controversial oil pipeline project along the state's North Slope, stating the government granted them based upon flawed environmental protection impact analysis that will now have to be redone.

The ruling comes in a case filed against the government's approval for permits to ConocoPhillips, the state's largest crude oil producer, to go ahead with its Willow Master Development Plan in the National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska's North Slope.

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Under the proposed oil and gas development project, five drill sites are to be created with the expectation that they will produce approximately 586 million barrels of oil over its 30-year lifespan.

The plan was approved by the Trump administration and then supported by the Biden administration, but Trustees for Alaska sued the government, accusing it of unlawfully permitting ConocoPhillips to go forward with its plan without properly analyzing the harm it may cause to nearby residents, the environment and wildlife.

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On Wednesday, Judge Sharon Gleason, a President Barack Obama appointee, ruled in its favor, stating the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act when analysis it used to form its Environmental Impact Statement was "arbitrary and capricious" as it excluded greenhouse gas emissions.

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She also ruled the Bureau of Land Management acted contrary to the law as it conducted analysis based on the notion ConocoPhillips had "the right to extract all possible oil and gas."

"As to the errors found by the court, they are serious," she wrote in her 110-page decision, adding that "BLM also failed to adequately analyze a range of reasonable alternatives for the Willow Project -- a process that is 'the heart of the environmental impact statement.'"

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The ruling voids the previously approved permits and forces the federal departments to again conduct the studies.

"The permits and approvals granted to ConocoPhillips disregarded local health concerns, required public processes and the law, and today's court ruling corrects that," Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska, said in a statement. "It would be unconscionable to allow Willow to move forward when its authorizations were founded on an illegal and deficient environmental analysis that fails to lay out and address impacts to wetlands, water, land, animals and people."

Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of lead plaintiff Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, said the decision recognizes that their land and people "deserve dignity and a pursuit of greater meaning."

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"This is our life," Maupin said, "and today we defended it in court, and tomorrow and every day after that we will fight to protect it."

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