Federal Judge Allows Construction to Proceed in ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska

Judge denies environmentalists’ motion for preliminary injunction


Jackson Chiappinelli, Earthjustice, (585) 402-2005, jchiappinelli@earthjustice.org

Kristen Monsell, Center for Biological Diversity, (914) 806-3467, kmonsell@biologicaldiversity.org

Brittany Miller, Friends of the Earth, (202) 222-0746, bmiller@foe.org

Sarah Street, NRDC, 202-289-2386, sstreet@nrdc.org

A federal judge today ruled in favor of oil giant ConocoPhillips by denying a motion for preliminary injunction brought by environmentalists as part of a lawsuit challenging the Willow project in Alaska’s Western Arctic. The ruling allows construction activities planned for the remaining three weeks of the construction season, including constructing roads and a gravel mine as a first step toward developing a massive oil-extraction operation. Regardless of this winter’s activities, the lawsuit is not over. The fight will continue, using every legal tool available, with the hope of preventing harm to the Western Arctic.

The road construction and gravel mining plans are slated for high-density caribou winter habitat, which, plaintiffs argue, will disturb the herd and affect hunters in the area. Mining for gravel also requires blasting, which will produce so much noise that the sound would not dissipate to ambient levels for more than 100 miles. The motion for preliminary injunction, which sought to halt this activity due to the irreparable harm it will cause, was filed as part of a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace USA, and by the Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 

Legal proceedings will continue. Plaintiffs’  lawsuit notes that the Department of the Interior’s March 13 approval for the Willow project was unlawful, because it failed to consider reasonable alternatives – such as limiting the project’s impacts on climate and the most sensitive areas in the Western Arctic. The Bureau of Land Management also failed to meaningfully consider greenhouse-gas emissions from the fossil fuel development Willow would catalyze. This project is only the beginning of sweeping fossil-fuel extraction that the oil giant has planned for the region, which could contain up to 3 billion barrels of oil in addition to the 600 million barrels in the Willow project area. Willow alone is expected to emit 260 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of 30 years.

Earthjustice and plaintiff groups issued the following statements in response to today’s ruling:

“Although the White House and Department of Interior were not persuaded to stop Willow despite the advocacy of more than 5 million individuals, we are now using the power of the law to restore some balance. While this particular round of the legal challenge did not produce the outcome we had hoped for, our court battle continues,” said Erik Grafe, Deputy Managing Attorney in Earthjustice’s Alaska Regional Office. “We will do everything within our power to protect the climate, wildlife, and people from this dangerous carbon bomb. Climate scientists have warned that we have less than seven years to get it right on climate change, and we cannot afford to lock in three decades of oil drilling that will only serve to open the door to more fossil-fuel extraction.”

“Today’s decision is a disappointment, but we remain undeterred,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Defenders of Wildlife’s Alaska Program Director. “We remain committed to protecting the western Arctic and look forward to the court’s full consideration of the Willow project, including its impacts to polar bears threatened with extinction and massive carbon emissions that will worsen the climate crisis for decades to come.” 

“We are disappointed that the Court decided to allow development of this dangerous carbon bomb while our litigation plays out,” said Hallie Templeton, Legal Director for Friends of the Earth. “However, the fight has just begun. We are confident in our claims that the administration failed to fully assess the range of environmental, social and economic damages that Willow will have. From harming local caribou herds and subsistence communities to fueling the climate crisis, the federal government must revisit its decision to greenlight this disastrous project.”

“Allowing ConocoPhillips to bulldoze forward with construction of the largest oil and gas project on public lands before the lawsuits are settled is needlessly destructive,” said Natalie Mebane, Climate Campaign Director at Greenpeace USA. “As the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. cannot afford Willow or any new oil and gas projects if we’re going to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. New projects will take years if not decades to complete. They do nothing to meet current energy needs. It will only deepen our dependence on expensive fossil fuels while destroying our climate, harming our health, and polluting communities.”

“It’s heartbreaking that ConocoPhillips has been allowed to break ground on Willow before the court has fully assessed whether the project is lawful,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But this case isn’t over, and we’ll keep fighting to protect struggling Arctic wildlife and our climate from this disastrous project. We’re hopeful we’ll get the Willow project’s approval thrown out once again.”

“Willow is a climate bomb that would lock in decades more dependence on fossil fuels, at the very time we need to shift to cleaner energy options,” said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council. “It would do irreparable harm to irreplaceable resources. It has no place in our energy future. It’s approval was unlawful. We look forward to making that case before the Court.”

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