Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice and together with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit late last night to stop the massive Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska’s Western Arctic, which the Biden administration approved on March 13. This enormous new carbon source undermines President Biden’s promises to slash greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2030 and transition the United States to clean energy.
“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. “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.”
Law firm Trustees for Alaska has filed a separate legal challenge on behalf of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and conservation groups.
The BLM’s record of decision approving Willow essentially greenlights ConocoPhillips’ desired blueprint while ignoring pleas from around 5.6 million people, including leadership from the nearby village of Nuiqsut, asking the federal government to halt Willow.
Even though the Biden administration describes its approval as a scaled-down version of the plan, the project will still add about 260 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere over the next 30 years, the equivalent of an extra two million cars on the road each year for thirty years. The project would cause irreparable harm to the environment, Arctic wildlife and nearby people who depend on the land for subsistence.
The legal challenge targets the Biden administration for failing to consider alternatives that could have meaningfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions and on-the-ground effects. Interior has relied on a mistaken conclusion that it could not deny nor meaningfully limit the project, and it considered project alternatives that ranged only from allowing ConocoPhillips to develop 100 percent of the available oil to allowing it to develop 92 percent of the oil. The Biden administration had the authority to stop Willow – yet chose not to.
The lawsuit also takes the administration to task for failing to assess Willow’s full climate impact, by neglecting to consider the additional climate pollution of future development that can only happen once Willow project infrastructure is in place. ConocoPhillips has described Willow to its investors as the “next great Alaska hub,” saying it had identified a staggering amount of oil, possibly as much as 3 billion barrels, of nearby prospects that could be accessed if the Willow infrastructure were in place.
Earthjustice and its clients, together with co-plaintiff NRDC, released the following statements as the lawsuit was filed:
“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. “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.”
"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 for Friends of the Earth. "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."
“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 existential threat,” said Natalie Mebane, climate director for Greenpeace USA. “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. 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.”
“We’re asking the court to halt this illegal project and ensure the public knows its true climate impacts," said Christy Goldfuss, chief policy impact officer for NRDC. “Permitting Willow to go forward is green-lighting a carbon bomb. It would set back the climate fight and embolden an industry hell-bent on destroying the planet.”
“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. “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.”
This is the second time the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approved the Willow project. The Trump administration first approved the project in 2020. Conservation and Alaska Native groups challenged the approval, and the court threw it out as unlawful in 2021. It instructed BLM to reassess the project’s full climate impacts and consider alternatives that would lessen its overall impacts. In approving Willow for the second time, the Biden administration has failed to heed these instructions, producing an environmental analysis that falls short in these same respects.
As approved, the project includes three drill sites, gravel roads, a central processing facility, an operations center, an airstrip, hundreds of miles of ice roads, and it allows drilling and roads in the Teshekpuk Lake special area, one of the most important and sensitive areas in the Arctic. ConocoPhillips’ operations would use chillers to re-freeze thawing permafrost, to make the ground stable enough for drilling to continue.
Further, approval of Willow sets into motion a westward expansion of oil development into additional ecologically sensitive areas critical for both subsistence and the protection of wildlife species that are already threatened by climate change.
The reserve is home to polar bears, which are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, plus musk oxen, caribou, and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Two caribou herds – the Western Arctic and the Teshekpuk Lake herds – calve and migrate through the region and are a vital subsistence resource for Alaska Native communities in northern and western Alaska.