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 projects.

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 water crossings.

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 Congress.

"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 said.

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 over time."

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 Environmental Justice."

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 Resolution mine.

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.

Previously granted leases are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis, administration officials say. There are no expectations inside the administration or among lobbyists or members of Congress the administration is pulling back from a larger goal of transitioning the country to cleaner fuels to address climate change.

"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 climate change.

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 Reserve-Alaska.

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 deadlines.

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 nomination.

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.

Under pressure from Wall Street to reduce costs and raise profits, oil companies have been shying away from expensive megaprojects, especially in far-flung, environmentally sensitive places like Alaska. In January, the federal government's first ever major oil lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge produced only $14 million in high bids -- far shy of the billion dollars once forecast -- the vast majority of it from an Alaska state investment agency, none from major oil companies.

Conoco 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 requirements."

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 environmental evaluation.

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 project.

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 play."

Katy Stech Ferek contributed to this article.

Write to Timothy Puko at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 01, 2021 10:39 ET (14:39 GMT)

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