Environmental groups and indigenous groups are suing the Willow Oil-Drilling Project

Environmental groups and indigenous groups are suing the Willow Oil-Drilling Project

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  • March 15, 2023
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AC CABLE | Environmentalists on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, marking a new phase in the battle over drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The hotly contested $8 billion project will develop three new drilling areas in the remote wilderness of Alaska’s western North Shore and is estimated to be capable of producing approximately 600 million barrels of oil over its three decade lifetime.

The lawsuit, filed by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of a coalition of environmental and indigenous groups, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska to revoke the permit because the federal government failed to consider the project’s indirect and direct climate risks as well as damage to wildlife such as polar bears and subsistence hunting.

“The Biden administration’s approval of the ConocoPhillips Willow project makes no sense for the health of the Arctic or the planet and comes after numerous calls from local communities for tribal consultation and genuine appreciation of the impact on land, water, animals and people,” Siqiñiq said Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA), in a statement.

SILA is a party to the lawsuit along with the Alaska Wilderness League, Environment America, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.

The groups claimed that the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of Willow did not take the required “hard look” under the National Environmental Policy Act and violated provisions of the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, procedural law have and other federal laws.

“These laws require consideration of alternatives and thorough, transparent and careful analysis by BLM of the implications of ConocoPhillips’ proposal. BLM violated those laws by failing to consider reasonable alternatives that would reduce the impact on the reservation,” the Alaska trustee told the court. The lawsuit also alleges that the Fish and Wildlife Service acted haphazardly and capriciously in finding that the project failed to adequately address the risk to polar bears from oil and gas exploration.

The challengers further claimed that the Biden administration’s environmental review failed to respond to all of the concerns raised by Justice Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in a 2021 order blocking the project. The Trump administration originally gave ConocoPhillips the green light for five prospects in 2020 as part of a push to expand domestic fossil fuel production as part of its energy independence agenda.

Gleason, who was appointed under the Obama administration, had opposed Willow in part for failing to adequately consider alternatives or consider options that would “maximally protect” an ecologically important area for waterfowl and caribou around Lake Teshekpuk. were.

BLM released a final decision record Monday in response to the 2021 court order that reduced the overall size of the ConocoPhillips project to three drill sites, including up to 199 oil wells.

ConocoPhillips commended the project’s approval Monday, saying it would help create union jobs and benefit Alaska Natives (Greenwire, March 13).

“Willow aligns with the Biden administration’s priorities of environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security,” ConocoPhillips chairman and CEO Ryan Lance said in a statement.

The project also has support from Alaska’s congressional delegation, who said in a statement Monday that the project would have economic benefits. Interior does not comment on pending litigation.

The new lawsuit accuses the Biden administration of continuing to consider alternatives that included infrastructure in the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River Special Areas.

The groups quoted BLM as claiming in their final minutes of the decision that excluding these areas from development “would not meet the purpose and needs of the project and would leave an economically viable quantity of oil stranded.”

The lawsuit also notes that the Biden administration’s own analysis had determined that its preferred alternative for the project “would not result in a material reduction in the direct impact on Nuiqsut’s subsistence harvesters.”

Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity followed the Alaska Trustees with their own state challenge Tuesday, making similar claims against the Biden administration.

Their lawsuit also alleged that NOAA fisheries failed to account for the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on ringed and bearded seals.

“There is no question that the government had the legal authority to stop Willow – but they chose not to. It gave the green light to this carbon bomb without properly assessing its climate impact or considering its mitigation options and saying no,” Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said in a statement.

“We are committed to ensuring that the administration obeys the law and ultimately fulfills that promise to future generations,” the statement said.

This story also appears on Energywire.

E&E News reprinted with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.

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