Environmentalists and indigenous groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s approval of ConocoPhillips’s $8 billion Willow oil project in Alaska, arguing the government failed to consider smaller, greener options for development.
The filing Tuesday is the opening volley in what’s expected to be a protracted legal battle against one of the largest oil-and-gas projects ever permitted on US federal land. A second group of environmentalists is preparing to file a similar challenge shortly.
“Once again, we find ourselves going to court to protect our lives, our communities and our future,” Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, said in a news release. “We will continue to fight this project.”
The legal challenge in federal district court in Alaska comes one day after the Biden administration approved the project and as ConocoPhillips begins constructing ice roads at the site. It was filed by Trustees for Alaska, on behalf of the Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, Northern Alaska Environmental Center and three other groups.
The Interior Department declined to comment. ConocoPhillips expressed confidence in the government review that led to its approval.
“The Willow project’s development began in 2017 and has followed a nearly five-year-long regulatory process overseen by the Bureau of Land Management,” said ConocoPhillips spokesman Dennis Nuss. “We believe the BLM and cooperating agencies have conducted a thorough process that satisfies all legal requirements.”
The lawsuit accuses the Biden administration of violating the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and other laws, arguing the Interior Department failed to analyze the project’s full impacts on climate change, especially in the Arctic region that is warming at four times the rate of the rest of the planet. Over 30 years, Willow could yield some 240 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the government’s calculations.
The filing also argues the government didn’t fulfill its obligation to consider reasonable project design options that would shrink impacts on caribou and Alaska Native communities that depend on them for subsistence. And the groups take issue with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that Willow won’t harm polar bears that have dens in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, arguing that industrial oil operations “pose a multi-faceted threat” to the animals and exacerbate climate change that’s already melting the sea ice they rely on.
The Interior Department “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,” Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska, said in a statement.
Critics of the project say the Biden administration’s approval includes many of the same weaknesses as a Trump-era authorization of Willow that was voided in 2021, after a similar legal battle.
Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group, is preparing to file a second lawsuit against the project on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and other organizations.
“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 green lit this carbon bomb without adequately assessing its climate impacts.”
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