Court Puts the Freeze on Dangerous Arctic Drilling Plan
For decades, the oil industry has drooled over the chance to drill into the oil-rich depths beneath the Arctic tundra. But there’s one big problem: As fossil fuel emissions heat our planet, permafrost — the once permanently frozen layer of Arctic soil — is melting, making it harder (and more expensive) for oil and gas companies to set up drilling operations.
This literally shaky ground might encourage some companies to change their ways and invest in clean energy. But ConocoPhillips has a different solution. Refreeze the tundra — then drill for oil.
The company’s plan is a classic example of the fossil fuel industry’s capacity for single-minded greed. But thanks to Earthjustice litigation and a recent court order, ConocoPhillip’s plan just fell through the ice.
ConocoPhillips’ attempts to refreeze the Arctic so it can drill for oil began back in 2018. In May of that year, it sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management requesting approval of the so-called “Willow Project,” an innocent-sounding name for a project that nevertheless would permanently scar the largest tract of public land in the United States.
In addition to hauling giant chillers into America’s Western Arctic, the project involves constructing five drill sites, as well as building 37 miles of new gravel roads, seven bridges, an airstrip, almost 500 miles of ice roads, and a gravel mine on publicly-owned lands.
Over 30 years, Willow would produce more than half a billion barrels of oil, releasing a climate bomb equal to hundreds of millions of tons of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions once that oil is burned. The project would also threaten imperiled species like polar bears and caribou and jeopardize the health and traditional practices of nearby Indigenous communities.
Willow is so obviously bad for people and the planet that it’s no surprise the previous administration did everything it could to ram it through in its final days. This included gutting key safeguards to open up the Western Arctic for more oil and gas drilling and silencing Indigenous voices by holding public hearings on the Willow Project during the COVID-19 crisis. On the morning of President Biden’s inauguration, the Trump administration signed Willow’s final authorizations, giving the finger to the American public and its desire to act decisively on climate on its way out the door.
Earthjustice, which sued the Trump administration in December 2020 for its initial approval of the project, quickly filed a request for a preliminary injunction. If granted, preliminary injunctions essentially prevent the opposing legal party from pursuing a particular action until the court decides the case. With Willow, we wanted to stop ConocoPhillips from breaking ground on its gravel mine and building roads while the case played out, which would irreparably damage the Arctic ecosystem and our clients’ uses of it. We also argued that, given how lawlessly and sloppily the previous administration had reviewed the project, the court was likely to side with us in the end anyway.
After initially denying this request in early February 2021, a district judge reversed course and temporarily halted the project, citing testimony from our client Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Alaska Native resident of Nuiqsut, who convinced the judge that construction should be stopped because it would cause harm to her and the community.
A week later, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals went further, delivering an early valentine to conservation and Indigenous groups by granting a preliminary injunction that effectively pauses the project while the court considers several legal questions in the case. Since that isn’t expected to be finished until at least May, this means there will be no construction during the winter season.
In its ruling, the court relied on a previous decision to reject another oil and gas proposal in the Arctic called the Liberty Project. Like Willow, the Liberty Project was approved by Trump regulators who used faulty economic modeling to reach the conclusion that this project would result in almost no harm to the climate. After we sued the administration, the Ninth Circuit rejected its bogus argument, determining that the Trump administration’s approval violated federal law and ignored climate change.
The courts’ decisions bode well for our ongoing Willow case, as well as our efforts to push the Biden administration to change its position on the project and ice this climate zombie for good.
We’ll keep you posted.