Skip to main content

Court Freezes Dangerous Arctic Drilling Plan, But Biden Administration Won't Ice It for Good

The Biden administration is defending ConocoPhillips’ dangerous plan to refreeze and then drill the Arctic for oil.

A Conoco-Phillips drill site in the Western Arctic.

A Conoco-Phillips drill site in the Western Arctic.

ConocoPhillips Company

During the previous administration, the oil industry made a mad dash 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 it for oil.

The company’s plan is a classic example of the fossil fuel industry’s capacity for single-minded greed, even as the climate careens toward disaster. Thanks to Earthjustice litigation and several courtroom wins, ConocoPhillip’s plan is temporarily on ice. But President Biden’s Department of Justice has filed a brief defending the Trump administration’s approval of the drilling plan, which clashes directly with Biden’s promise to aggressively tackle the climate crisis.  

Caribou in the Western Arctic
Caribou in the Western Arctic.
Kiliii Yüyan for Earthjustice

ConocoPhillips’ Arctic drilling plan began back in 2018, when it sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management requesting approval of the so-called “Willow Project.” Though an innocent-sounding name, Willow would nevertheless permanently scar the largest tract of public land in the U.S.

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 building 66 new coal-fired power plants and operating them for a year. 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 obviously bad for people and the planet, yet the previous administration did everything it could to ram Willow and other oil-drilling projects 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.

Oil and gas infrastructure in the Western Arctic.
Oil and gas infrastructure in the Western Arctic.
Kiliii Yüyan for Earthjustice

Earthjustice, which sued the Trump administration in December 2020 for its approval of the project, quickly filed a request for a preliminary injunction. 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 Indigenous peoples’ 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 our request in early February 2020, a district judge reversed course and temporarily halted the project, citing testimony from our client Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Alaska Native resident of Nuiqsut. She 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 paused the project while the court considers several legal questions in the case. Since the court wasn’t expected to finish this process until at least May, that meant there was no construction during the winter season — a huge win for those who depend on this area for their livelihoods.

In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit 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, which is patently false. After we sued the administration over Liberty, the Ninth Circuit rejected its bogus argument, determining that the Trump administration’s approval violated federal law and ignored climate change.

Most recently, a federal district court judge vacated the Trump administration's approval of the Willow project, which means that Biden's Interior Department must now go back and conduct a thorough environmental assessment before the court will make a new decision. Or, given Biden's promise to enact historic progress on climate change, the current administration could just drop the Willow project.

Caribou and migratory birds in the Western Arctic around the Teshekpuk Lake area.
Caribou and migratory birds in the Western Arctic around the Teshekpuk Lake area.
Kiliii Yüyan for Earthjustice

Yet the Biden administration has not yet chosen to reverse course to stop this climate bomb. In addition, his administration is backing Trump’s previous acts to grant oil and gas leases on federal land in Wyoming, and has declined to stop oil from flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline. Though Biden has also made some encouraging headway on tackling climate change in other ways, supporting these fossil fuel projects are huge missteps.

Earthjustice attorney Layla Hughes says that now is the time for the public to speak out against the Willow Project.

“Addressing climate change is about science, but it’s also about justice….[T]his means that we have to help local communities prepare for a renewable energy economy and not keep them dependent on a dying industry,” said Hughes in a recent local interview.

The administration is going to have to draw a line in the sand (or tundra) on whether it wants to preserve a livable future for all, or fossil fuel profits for the relatively few — it can’t do both.

This blog was originally published in February 2021. It was updated in June 2021.