Conservation Groups Sue Biden Administration to Stop Willow Oil Project in Alaska’s Sensitive Western Arctic
In response to the Biden administration’s approval of the controversial Willow oil project in Alaska’s Western Arctic on March 13, today nonprofit public interest organization Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of conservation groups the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, to stop the project, a press release from Earthjustice said.
The groups say the administration’s environmental review did not account for the full climate impact of the project.
“It’s shocking that Biden greenlit the Willow project despite knowing how much harm it’ll cause Arctic communities and wildlife,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in the press release. “Now we have to step up and fight for these priceless wild places and the people and animals that depend on them. It’s clear that we can’t count on Biden to keep his word on confronting climate change and halting drilling on public lands.”
A separate legal challenge has been filed by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and conservation groups.
“Millions of people — from Indigenous groups to former vice-president Al Gore — have come out in opposition to the project. The Department of the Interior has substantial concerns about the Willow project and the harm it could cause to the climate, wildlife, and people,” said Natalie Mebane, climate campaign director for Greenpeace USA, in the press release. “This is a make-or-break moment for the president’s climate legacy. He needs to listen to the people, his own departments, and himself when he says we have an obligation to confront the climate crisis. The first step is for him to follow the science and stop approving oil and gas projects.”
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) first approved the Willow project in 2020, during the Trump administration. Following a challenge by Alaska Native and conservation groups, approval for the project was thrown out by the court in 2021.
BLM was instructed by the court to conduct a reassessment of the full climate impacts of the project, as well as to consider alternatives that would decrease its overall impacts.
The press release from Earthjustice said that when Willow was again approved on March 13, 2023, the Biden administration failed to adhere to the instructions of the court, and provided a similarly insufficient environmental analysis.
The approved Willow project includes an air strip, gravel roads, hundreds of miles of ice roads, three drilling sites, an operations center and central processing facility. The operations by ConocoPhillips would permit roads and drilling in one of the most sensitive and crucial areas in the Arctic, the Teshekpuk Lake special area.
“We are enraged that the administration has again approved Willow despite the clear threats posed to the Western Arctic’s vulnerable environment and communities,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director at Friends of the Earth, in the press release. “Our prior victory forcing BLM to re-do its environmental analysis should have proven that more must be done to protect our last remaining wild places from Big Oil’s exploitation. We can only hope that the court sees this for what it is: another unlawful, faulty, and disastrous decision that must be stopped.”
Willow’s approval will further endanger ecologically important areas that protect threatened polar bears and other wildlife already struggling to adapt to climate change.
This crucial reserve is not only home to polar bears, but to the Teshekpuk Lake and Western Arctic caribou herds — which migrate through the region and which Alaska Native communities in the northern and western parts of the state rely on for subsistence — as well as musk oxen and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.
“The Biden administration’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow project in the western Arctic of Alaska is a disappointing leap backwards,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Defenders of Wildlife’s Alaska program director, in the press release. “This would further imperil climate-sensitive wildlife including threatened polar bears, lock in oil and gas drilling and massive greenhouse gas emissions for decades, and offset the administration’s priority to rein in climate change.”
The lawsuit also points out that the Biden administration failed to consider future climate pollution from development that will only be possible once the infrastructure from Willow has been built.
Willow has been characterized as “the next great Alaska hub” by ConocoPhillips to its investors, the press release said.
“The science is clear. We cannot afford any new oil or gas projects if we are going to avoid climate catastrophe. Approving what would be the largest oil extraction project on federal lands is incredibly hypocritical from President Biden who in his State of the Union called the climate crisis an
The approval of Willow by the BLM ignores appeals to stop the project from the nearby community of Nuiqsut, as well as around 5.6 million others who oppose the project.
“The Biden administration has failed to listen to the science, the voices of Native leaders in the region and millions of people across America who have pleaded for the protection of air quality, subsistence resources and the global climate by rejecting Willow,” said Karlin Itchoak, senior regional director, Alaska Region, of The Wilderness Society, as Reuters reported.
The Willow project will produce 286.6 million tons of carbon emissions over the next 30 years, which is equal to putting another two million cars on the roads annually.
“There is no question that the administration possessed the legal authority to stop Willow — yet it chose not to,” said Erik Grafe, deputy managing attorney in Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office, in the press release. “It greenlit this carbon bomb without adequately assessing its climate impacts or weighing its options to limit the damage and say no. The climate crisis is one of the greatest challenges we face, and President Biden has promised to do all he can to meet the moment. We’re bringing today’s lawsuit to ensure that the administration follows the law and ultimately makes good on this promise for future generations.”