ConocoPhillips sues Biden administration over Alaska drilling restrictions

Alaska’s largest oil company has filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, asking a judge to toss out new rules imposed by the Biden administration that they say “thwart and prevent the production of petroleum” across millions of acres of an Alaskan reserve. 

The recent filing from ConocoPhillips Alaska, Inc. in U.S. District Court comes months after the regulations surrounding the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) were set in place by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The federal agency describes the reserve as a “vast, approximately 23-million-acre area on Alaska’s North Slope” that was set aside by President Harding in 1923 as an “emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy” before its administration was transferred into BLM’s hands about five decades later. 

ConocoPhillips’ is arguing in the lawsuit that “BLM issued final regulations that drastically and fundamentally change the priorities, substantive standards, and processes for management and administration of the Petroleum Reserve.” 

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“In promulgating the Rules, BLM has attempted to override and evade clear Congressional mandates, changing the management priority for the Petroleum Reserve from expeditious leasing and production to meet the Nation’s energy needs to creating ‘maximum protection’ of surface values and prohibiting development activities,” the lawsuit says. “BLM ignored Congress’ direction and made a unilateral policy choice that 13 million acres of the Petroleum Reserve are ‘too special to develop’ for oil and gas and should instead be preserved as wilderness areas, and gave itself unlimited authority to expand those ‘too special’ 13 million acres at will.” 

“Among other changes, BLM created a presumption against any petroleum-related activities in ‘Special Areas,’ which currently comprise more than half of the Petroleum Reserve, and granted itself unfettered discretion to expand (but not reduce) those Special Areas without limitation,” the lawsuit also says. “Outside of those Special Areas, BLM granted itself unfettered discretion to delay or deny any oil and gas activities for any reason BLM sees fit, including on the basis of undefined ‘uncertainty.’” 

ConocoPhillips, which describes itself in the lawsuit as Alaska’s largest oil producer and one that holds “1.8 million acres of state and federal leases in Alaska, including 1 million net undeveloped acres as of year-end 2023,” is now asking a judge to vacate the rules in their entirety. 

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
COP CONOCOPHILLIPS 111.18 -1.02 -0.91%

The BLM said in April that “Under the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act (NPRPA) of 1976, as amended, Congress directed the BLM to balance oil and gas development with the management and protection of significant resource values in locations known as Special Areas and mitigate impacts of oil and gas activities on surface resources across the reserve.” 

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ConocoPhillips Headquarters

It said that the regulations update “the existing regulatory framework, adopted more than 40 years ago, allowing the BLM to more effectively respond to changing conditions in the NPR-A, while striking a balance between oil and gas development and the management and protection of surface values, including wildlife habitat vital to subsistence.”  

The BLM says the regulations codify protections for “13.3 million acres encompassed by the existing Special Areas, limiting future oil and gas leasing and industrial development in the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay Special Areas – places collectively known for their globally significant intact habitat for wildlife, including grizzly and polar bears, caribou and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds” and “codifies existing prohibitions on new leasing in 10.6 million acres, more than 40 percent of the NPR-A.” 

However, the lawsuit from ConocoPhillips says in 1980, “Congress re-purposed the Petroleum Reserve to help meet the Nation’s oil and gas needs amidst a national energy crisis” and started “authorizing privately funded exploration, development, and production in the Petroleum Reserve.” 

Alaska oil reserve map

        

President Biden said in April that “These natural wonders demand our protection” and that he is “proud that my Administration is taking action to conserve more than 13 million acres in the Western Arctic and to honor the culture, history, and enduring wisdom of Alaska Natives who have lived on and stewarded these lands since time immemorial.” 

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