Environmentalists sue to block approval of Willow oil project in Alaska
(CN) — A coalition of environmental groups sued to block the Biden administration's approval Monday of ConocoPhillips's Willow Master Development Plan for a massive oil and gas drilling project in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve.
"Willow would result in the construction and operation of extensive oil and gas and other infrastructure in sensitive arctic habitats and will significantly impact the region’s wildlife, air, water, lands, and people," the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, and other groups said in a complaint filed Tuesday in federal court.
The Bureau of Land Management, which approved the project, failed to take a "hard look" at the impacts of Willow and did not consider reasonable alternatives, according to the complaint. The groups also allege the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an "arbitrary and capricious" opinion that Willow wouldn't jeopardize the continued existence of threatened polar bears.
The Biden administration's approval of the largest proposed oil drilling project on U.S. public land in decades won it a rare round of applause from right-wing members of Congress. According to ConocoPhillips, the Willow project can produce about 180,000 barrels of oil per day once it is at its peak.
The Interior Department on Monday sought to frame its decision as a compromise on what could have been a larger drilling project. By rejecting two of the five sites that ConocoPhillips had proposed, the government says it reduced the effort’s total footprint by 40% and lessened its overall harm to the environment.
The same groups successfully blocked the Bureau of Land Management's previous approval of the project under the Trump administration. A federal judge in 2021 vacated the bureau’s go-ahead of the Willow project under the National Environmental Policy Act and told it to redo its analysis. The judge also vacated Fish and Wildlife's biological opinion at the time.
The 22.8-million acre Alaska reserve, about the size of Indiana, was created in 1923 as a petroleum reserve for the U.S. Navy, and it is the largest single public land unit in the U.S. A number of areas within the reserve have since been designated for maximum protection because of their ecological importance.
The Reserve provides rich habitat for caribou, grizzly and polar bears, wolves, and a range of migratory birds and waterfowl, the environmental groups said in the lawsuit. It is also home to the Western Arctic and Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herds, which provide key subsistence resources to numerous communities in the Reserve and across northwest Alaska.
"Willow will lock in Arctic oil and gas extraction for another 30 years and catalyze future oil expansion in the Arctic," Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic said Monday in response to government's approval of the project. "Fossil fuels are single-handedly the most damaging contributor to the global climate emergency, especially in the Arctic. The oil and gas industry further pollutes and causes health harms to local people, including to their food access, cultural traditions, and physical and mental health."
Representatives of the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service could not immediately be reached for comment.
The environmental groups' lawsuit claims violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act, and they seek a court order to set aside the approval of the project.
They are represented by Bridget Psarianos, Suzanne Bostrom, and Brook Brisson of the Trustees for Alaska in Anchorage.