Biden’s Justice Department Is Defending a Trump-Era Plan to Drill the Arctic

The Biden administration continues to talk tough on climate while also doing things like this.

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Drilling operations at the Doyon Rig 19 at the Conoco-Phillips carbon location in the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska.
Photo: Judy Patrick (AP)

President Joe Biden campaigned saying that the climate crisis is the “number one threat” facing the U.S. Since entering the White House, he’s pledged to decarbonize the U.S. electricity grid by 2035 and ordered his administration to place a moratorium on drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But on Wednesday, his administration confirmed that it will defend a massive oil and gas drilling project in the Arctic that the Trump administration fast-tracked.

The multibillion-dollar Willow Master Development Plan proposed by ConocoPhillips seeks to extract more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years from Alaska’s North Slope in the western Arctic. The Trump administration greenlit the plan last autumn, allowing the company to drill up to three sites and build 37 miles (60 kilometers) of gravel roads, 386 miles (621 kilometers) of pipelines, an airstrip, and a facility to process the oil drilled on site.


Six conservation and Indigenous rights groups sued the government over the project in December, alleging that federal officials did not properly examine how the project would worsen the climate crisis, put the health and traditional practices of nearby Indigenous communities in jeopardy, and harm fragile Arctic caribou, migratory bird, and polar bear populations. In February, a federal court ordered a pause on construction while the suit is pending.

In light of the lawsuit, Biden previously directed his Interior Department to review the project’s approval. But on Wednesday, the Justice Department filed a legal brief saying that “Conoco does have valid lease rights.” From a legal standpoint, the brief says, federal agencies “adequately considered” the project’s effects on wildlife and that the Trump administration’s method of accounting for the greenhouse gas emissions the project will generate were acceptable. Groups that filed the suit are enraged.


“A change in administrations doesn’t suddenly make the industrialization of Alaska’s western Arctic more palatable,” Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, wrote in an email. “It doesn’t guarantee clean air and clean water for the people of Nuiqsut, essentially ignored throughout the permitting process and who are already feeling the negative impacts of development.”

Miller said that despite the Biden administration’s claims, the Willow project would violate “bedrock environmental laws” including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, and that the Trump administration based its projections of the project’s greenhouse gas pollution on “inaccurate climate modeling.” Indeed, in its February ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court said the agencies’ climate modeling was faulty.


The DOJ brief comes barely more than a week after the International Energy Agency issued a groundbreaking report showing fossil fuel expansion needs to stop next year to meet the Paris Agreement target of keeping global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). And just last month, the Biden administration pledged to chop the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half compared to 2005 levels by the end of this decade. Throwing support behind this project, Miller said, flies in the face of those commitments.

“The Willow project is the poster child for the type of massive fossil fuel development that must be avoided today if we’re to avoid the worst climate impacts down the road,” said Miller.


The communities and wildlife that the project would put in harm’s way already face huge risks due to the climate crisis. The Arctic is one of the world’s most rapidly warming regions, and the quickening ice melting and permafrost thawing there are limiting people’s ability to travel, find food, and pursue cultural practices, to say nothing of the impacts on wildlife. Faster permafrost melt is already contributing to coastal erosion that threatens Indigenous communities, and it’s set to worsen in the coming decades.

All this warming is also making it harder for oil and gas drillers to do their business. ConocoPhillips has an absurd workaround for that, though. The firm’s Willow proposal included plans to install chillers into the permafrost to ensure it stays solid enough to drill through. Miller said this aspect of the plan was “infuriating.”


“What message does this send to frontline Arctic communities whose ice cellars are failing, or worse, whose villages are literally falling into the sea because of permafrost thaw?” she asked. “What does this say about our actual desire to address climate impacts and do the right thing by future generations if we’re good with letting industry work around its own climate impacts in order to continue the very activities that caused and will make those impacts worse?”

The brief isn’t the only disappointing climate decision that Biden’s DOJ has made. In March, it threw its support behind the PennEast Pipeline company in its attempt to overturn a 2019 court decision ruling that the company couldn’t use eminent domain powers to seize state-owned lands to develop a natural gas pipeline. The agency is also trying to kill a kids’ climate case that’s been wending its way through courts for years. Max Moran, a research assistant at the Center for Economic Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, said that the agency’s comportment under Attorney General Merrick Garland on the climate crisis has overall been disappointing.


“As soon as Merrick Garland was confirmed as Joe Biden’s attorney general, he should have immediately directed the Justice Department to drop every Trump-era environmental case it was working on to defend or expand fossil fuel production,” he said. “Instead, Garland has been running the DOJ according to business-as-usual procedure, which means treating Trump as if he were any other president and not the corrupt authoritarian who nearly ended American democracy. As a result, Garland has mostly continued DOJ policies and litigation stances initiated under Trump.”

He noted that the DOJ counts officials with ties to major corporations among its ranks. Its top environmental lawyer, Todd Kim, for instance, spent the last three years working at the law firm Reed Smith, which boasts that it counsels energy giants—including ConocoPhillips.


The federal court could ultimately still rule that the project cannot proceed, but the Biden administration’s support could help tip the scales in the energy firm’s favor.

“This is especially disappointing coming from a president who promised to do better, but we’re not backing down and we will see them in court,” Siqiñiq Maupin, director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, an Arctic Indigenous rights organization, said in a statement. “We hope the administration changes course to stand with us and our health and right to be heard because our lives and our children’s lives depend on it.”