The Department of Justice filed a legal brief today defending the Trump administration’s approval of a massive oil and gas project known as the Willow Master Development Plan in Alaska’s Western Arctic. Conservation groups filed a lawsuit challenging the project in December, after federal officials failed to properly examine how the project would exacerbate the climate crisis and harm caribou and polar bears. This oil drilling project is at odds with President Biden’s historic climate leadership and today conservation groups and local Alaska Native leaders call on the administration to withdraw the Trump decision and start a new review of the Willow project.
“This project is in the important fall migration for Nuiqsut,” said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a Nuiqsut resident. “It should not happen. The village spoke in opposition and the greed for profit should not be allowed over our village.”
At an earlier phase of the case, the court found that plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to properly examine the significance of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the project before approving it. A court-approved agreement now blocks work on the project until Dec. 1.
“It’s incredibly disappointing to see the Biden administration defending this environmentally disastrous project,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope it’s not the administration’s final word on Willow. President Biden promised climate action and our climate can’t afford more huge new oil-drilling projects. Conoco’s plan to refreeze melting permafrost in hopes of having a solid drilling surface highlights the ridiculousness of drilling in the Arctic. It’s one of many reasons why this project should never have been approved.”
“The Willow Project squeaked in at the end of Trump’s presidency. Why is the Justice Department giving it a lifeline?” said Hallie Templeton, deputy legal director at Friends of the Earth. “Biden’s administration has the power to reverse Trump-era Arctic drilling approvals and should begin that now rather than locking in a future for oil and gas development.”
Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States over the past 60 years, presenting many disruptions to Arctic ecosystems and exacerbating sea-level rise, sea-ice melt, and permafrost thaw. ConocoPhillips’ plan involves using giant chillers to refreeze thawing permafrost to help ensure a solid drilling surface.
The Willow project also involves drilling up to 250 wells and building and operating a processing facility, hundreds of miles of ice roads, hundreds of miles of pipelines, an airstrip, and a gravel mine in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Burning the estimated 590 million barrels of oil to be extracted during the life of the project would result in nearly 280 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions — the equivalent of nearly 65 coal plants operating for a year.
“Last week’s report from the International Energy Agency clearly showed that a path to a 1.5 degree world has no room for opening up new oil and gas fields for extraction,” said Matt Krogh, U.S. oil & gas campaign director at Stand.earth. “It makes no sense to allow the extraction of 590 million barrels of oil from an undeveloped field. That undermines Biden’s climate commitments and rejects the analysis of the world’s leading energy modeling agency.”
Willow would permanently scar the largest undeveloped area in the United States, jeopardize the health and traditional practices of nearby Indigenous communities, and harm essential wildlife habitat for polar bears, migratory birds, caribou, and other iconic species.
“Thirty years of climate pollution from this oil project will accelerate the global climate crisis and it is at odds with the Biden administration’s bold climate leadership,” said Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney for Earthjustice. “To stay on track with tackling this crisis in the short time we have, the Bureau of Land Management should revisit the Trump-era decision to green-light ConocoPhillips’ massive oil and gas development plan in the Western Arctic.”
Shortly after his inauguration, Biden issued Executive Orders 13990 and 14008, articulating climate and environmental policies that seek to facilitate a historic shift away from fossil fuels and toward a clean-energy future. He also flagged ConocoPhillips’ Willow project for review. Biden’s Interior Department has the authority to send ConocoPhillips’ Western Arctic project back to the drawing board.
Last week, the International Energy Agency released its annual report, providing a roadmap for the Global Energy Sector. In that report, the agency explicitly stated that to meet global energy demand while achieving net zero emissions by 2050, no new fossil fuel projects should be approved.
Background: About the Western Arctic Reserve
The Reserve is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States, and its 23 million acres are recognized as a globally important ecological resource, home to bears, musk oxen, caribou and millions of migratory birds. The lakes and lagoons of the Reserve, including the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, are one of the most productive wetland complexes in the world; a haven for up to 100,000 molting geese, more than half a million shorebirds, and high densities of loons and eiders; and, an important calving ground for the Teshekpuk Caribou herds. The Reserve provides calving, insect relief, and migration areas for three of the state’s caribou herds — the Western Arctic, Central Arctic, and Teshekpuk Caribou herds — which provide vital subsistence resources for more than 40 communities in northern and western Alaska. The area also includes designated critical habitat for polar bears along the coastal areas of the Reserve and important habitat for other marine mammals, including Pacific walruses and ice seals. Congress recognized the extraordinary wildlife, wilderness, cultural, subsistence, recreational, and historical values of the Reserve when it transferred the management of it from the U.S. Navy to BLM in 1976.