By Timothy Puko
WASHINGTON -- Biden administration lawyers are defending oil and
mining projects approved under the Trump administration, benefiting
ConocoPhillips, Rio Tinto PLC, BHP Billiton Ltd. and others at the
expense of environmental and tribal groups challenging the
In a series of court arguments this spring, the administration
has supported the Willow oil project in Alaska, the Resolution
Copper Mining project in Arizona and the Dakota Access Pipeline,
all of which are on federal land or need federal approval for major
The legal filings have helped improve some of President Biden's
shakier relationships with lawmakers from Western states,
specifically moderate Democrats and some Republicans from which Mr.
Biden needs support to get his nominees and initiatives through
"I sense there's a lot more pragmatism there now," said Sen.
Steve Daines (R., Mont.), who has criticized the Biden
administration's pause on federal oil and gas leasing and its
decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline project.
Mr. Daines applauded the administration's recent federal court
filing to defend ConocoPhillips's Willow project against challenges
from environmental groups. And he praised several recent
nominations from Mr. Biden to fill out the leadership ranks at the
Interior Department, including the former energy industry lawyer
Tommy Beaudreau as deputy secretary.
"They have demonstrated an openness and willingness to have an
open dialogue on what's important to the West," Mr. Daines
The actions haven't gone over as well with Mr. Biden's typical
allies among environmentalists and tribes.
During his campaign, Mr. Biden promised to help spur a move away
from fossil fuels, especially oil.
"I would transition away from the oil industry, yes," Mr. Biden
said during the final presidential debate. "The oil industry
pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy
He also said he would enhance environmental protections for and
consultations with poor and minority communities, including Native
American tribes. "We cannot turn a blind eye to the way in which
environmental burdens and benefits have been and will continue to
be distributed unevenly along racial and socioeconomic lines,"
reads "The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and
Some of the administration's recent decisions not only advance
oil projects, but come in direct opposition to tribes that have
been fighting them.
"To the present moment, those are still empty words from the
Biden administration, empty words," said Michael Nixon, a lawyer
representing the Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit fighting the
Administration officials say the president remains committed to
an agenda aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and arresting
climate change. But they note Mr. Biden had also promised his
administration would honor the government's legal obligations
toward oil, gas and other industries -- and never called for
halting oil and mineral production under federal oversight.
"We have worked extremely hard to make sure we are doing all we
can to address climate impacts," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland
said on a call with reporters Friday on the administration's budget
proposal, saying it would reflect its commitment to addressing
ConocoPhillips's Willow project is planned as a
160,000-barrel-of-oil-a-day, 30-year project, drilling from on top
of permafrost in the federal government's National Petroleum
The Trump administration gave it final approval in October, but
the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted the project this
year. The decision came as part of a suit filed by Sovereign
Inupiat for a Living Arctic and several environmental groups,
saying Willow was approved without proper analysis of environmental
impacts, especially potential harm to polar bears.
Last week, the Biden administration filed a court brief in U.S.
District Court in Anchorage, Alaska, supporting the Trump
administration's decision. In a statement the Interior Department
said the department's approval last year met requirements under the
National Environmental Policy Act, and that environmental groups
challenging the decision didn't do so in time to meet legal
The Willow project was a priority for Alaska's members of
Congress, including Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, two of
just four Republicans who voted to approve Ms. Haaland's
Their potential support, especially Ms. Murkowski's, is
considered crucial as Mr. Biden pursues a major infrastructure
package and other legislation with a Senate divided 50-50.
Whether ConocoPhillips moves Willow forward is still uncertain
pending a potentially long court case. But company leaders have
been encouraged that the administration is fulfilling permit
requests and carrying on with day-to-day operations despite public
rhetoric often challenging to the industry, according to a person
familiar with the company's thinking.
"We are pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S.
Department of the Interior and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
recognize the robust, thorough and extensive review completed by"
federal agencies over more than two years, a ConocoPhillips
spokesman said. "We believe that review satisfies the legal
In another case in April, the administration declined to
intervene in a suit in front of U.S. District Judge James Boasberg
in Washington over the Dakota Access oil pipeline, effectively
allowing it to keep operating while the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers attempts to meet a court order for a more rigorous
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and environmental activists have
waged a fierce fight for years to stop the pipeline, which crosses
the Missouri River near the tribe's land as it carries oil nearly
1,200 miles to Illinois.
On May 17, the Biden administration also filed a brief in the
U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals defending a land swap Rio Tinto
and BHP's Resolution joint venture has with the federal government
to build the mine. The companies want to mine one of the world's
largest untapped copper deposits more than a mile deep under the
Tonto National Forest.
The site is known as Oak Flat and considered sacred by the San
Carlos Apache Tribe. The Justice Department's defense against an
appeal from the Apache Stronghold says the group is wrong to claim
the land transfer would violate federally protected religious
freedoms or the Apaches' treaty rights.
Mr. Nixon, the Apache Stronghold attorney, contends the
administration could have found legal arguments to seek to halt the
Its decision is "not only disappointing but disturbing," he
added. "They're defending the indefensible -- and an immoral act,
because it's crushing and destroying western Apache religion."
Some industry leaders, however, are also skeptical that the
recent decisions are at all a trend of increasing cooperation from
the Biden administration.
"We are evaluating the Administration's decisions on a
case-by-case basis," Anne Bradbury, chief executive of the American
Exploration and Production Council, which represents independent
companies, said. She said she hopes the administration "will
recognize the pivotal role America's oil and gas producers
Katy Stech Ferek contributed to this article.
Write to Timothy Puko at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 01, 2021 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)
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