Federal court rejects approval for Hilcorp’s Liberty Project

3-D model of a prospective gravel island and its oil drilling operation in Arctic waters.
A 3-D rendering of Hilcorp’s proposed offshore Arctic drilling Liberty project. (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)

A federal appeals court has overturned approval for Hilcorp’s Liberty Project, an offshore drilling prospect located east of Deadhorse, in the Beaufort Sea.

Liberty Project received key approval from the federal government in Oct. 2018 to become the first oil and gas production well in federal Arctic waters. But on Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with environmental groups who brought a legal challenge, saying agency review of the project was inadequate.

The judges said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management should have quantified the well’s greenhouse gas emissions, including the impact of the oil it produced and sent overseas. They also faulted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for not estimating the non-lethal impact drilling would have on polar bears.

Hilcorp became the sole owner of Liberty Project when it purchased BP’s oil and gas production assets in Alaska earlier this year.

The project’s development plan involves building a 24-acre gravel island to drill for oil in the shallow waters off the North Slope, and a subterranean pipeline to move the oil over 5 miles back to shore. Liberty is estimated to hold 120 million barrels of extractable oil.

The court’s decision in the case — the Center for Biological Diversity; Defenders of Wildlife; Friends of the Earth; Greenpeace USA; Pacific Environment v. Bernhardt — sends the project back to the Bureau to try again for approval.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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