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Six environmental groups sue the Biden administration over controversial Willow oil drilling project

If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the millions of people who signed a petition to stop the Willow Project, an $8 billion massive oil drilling project in Alaska’s Western Arctic, which the Biden administration approved on March 13.

Despite over one million letters against the project sent to the White House, a hailstorm of online activism, and disapproval from 5.6 million people in the Arctic, including leadership from the nearby village of Nuiqsut asking the federal government to halt the project, the administration is going full steam ahead.

The Willow Project would be the largest oil and gas project on U.S. public lands, releasing what environmental organizations are calling a “carbon bomb.” Now, six environmental groups are suing the administration over it.

Yesterday, March 14, the environmental law nonprofit, Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit on behalf of itself and five other conservation groups: the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Defenders of Wildlife.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the approval essentially greenlights the petroleum refinery company, ConocoPhillips’ desired blueprint for the region. It will start with releasing 260 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere over the next 30 years, which is the equivalent of nearly 70 coal-fired power plants operating for a year or putting an extra 2 million cars on the road for the next 30 years.

This will cause what the center calls “irreparable harm” to the environment, Alaskan wildlife, and communities who rely on the land for sustenance.

But it doesn’t end there. According to the lawsuit, Willow is only the starting point for industry plans to transform the Western Arctic.

“ConocoPhillips and other companies have identified billions of additional barrels of oil that could be developed by leveraging Willow’s infrastructure,” the lawsuit reads, which the organizations say will have “catastrophic impacts to a globally important ecosystem and people who live there.”

The groups say the project also threatens the ability of the U.S. to meet its climate action commitments by increasing emissions, potentially worsening melting ice habitats, and expanding fossil fuels at a rate that’s inconsistent with the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.

But how did we get here, and why is such a project so controversial?

In 2020, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the Willow Project in a slightly larger capacity under the Trump administration. Conservation and Alaska Native groups including Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and the Sierra Club challenged the approval, and the court threw it out as unlawful in 2021. Now, after a reassessment of the environment and climate impacts, BLM gave the Biden administration the greenlight, but these six groups say the assessment fell significantly short.

“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,” Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth said in a statement. “We can only hope that the court sees this for what it is: another unlawful, faulty, and disastrous decision that must be stopped.”

2 polar bears sit on snow, one looking directly at camera, one on its side with two paws up, and one putting its head in the snow
Photo credit: Unsplash / Hans-Jurgen Mager

But if the Willow Project is so disastrous, why did President Joe Biden approve it, especially when one of his main campaign pledges was to end oil and gas drilling on public lands?

As Bloomberg opinion columnist, Liam Denning, puts it he’s attempting to walk the fine line between environmentalism and energy security, as the approval of the Willow Project is an attempt to address the fallout from Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and last summer’s peak in pump prices.

The project will have production of 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak, or some 576 million barrels over 30 years. When just one barrel of oil provides 1,700 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy, that’s more than the average monthly energy usage in most U.S. cities.

Plus, Alaska’s sole House representative, Mary Peltola, a Democrat and the first Native Alaskan in Congress, is on board with the project for the economic opportunity it will bring to the area.

“After years of consistent, determined advocacy for this project, from people all across the state and from every walk of life, the Willow Project is finally moving forward,” Peltola said.

CNN also reports on Alaskan Native groups who have advocated for the project, such as the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat who are supportive of the jobs and economic stability the project will bring, along with the advancement of Native self-determination it will create, the group’s president, Nagruk Harcharek, said.

The project will bring 2,500 jobs during construction and 300 permanent jobs.

However, the six environmental groups posit that the BLM failed to follow requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act to consider alternatives that would bring jobs and meaningfully reduce emissions or lessen the project’s impact on the federally owned National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska, or NPR-A. Right now this area of the Western Arctic is pristine and untouched, but if it goes forward, the project will establish three oil sites there.

An oil rig sits amid small icebergs in the Northern Arctic near Alaska.
Image Credit: Flickr/Alaska Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement

The groups also allege BLM railed to take a required “hard look” at the project’s cumulative impacts, including on climate change.

As Bridget Psarianos, lead attorney for Trustees for Alaska, which represents the environmental groups said in a statement, “[The Department of] Interior attempted to put a shiny gloss over a structurally unsound decision that will, without question, result in a massive fossil fuel project that will reduce access to food and cultural practices for local communities.”

“This new decision allows ConocoPhillips to pump out massive amounts of greenhouse gasses that drive continued climate devastation in the Arctic and world,” she added, “The laws broken on the way to these permits demonstrate the government’s disregard for those who would be most directly harmed by industrial pollution and ignores Alaska’s and the world’s climate reality.”

On top of this alleged failure, they point out the project violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by dangerously impacting polar bears, ringed seals, and bearded seals on top of significantly restricting traditional cultural practices dependent on food resources like fish and caribou.

“It’s shocking that Biden greenlit the Willow project despite knowing how much harm it’ll cause Arctic communities and wildlife,” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

“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.”


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