A federal judge in Alaska has refused to block progress on a controversial willow oil drilling project while lawsuits against the project proceed.
The Biden administration approved ConocoPhillips’ massive willow oil drilling in Alaska on the North Slope last month. The project sparked a wave of online opposition in the weeks leading up to the Biden administration approving it, including more than 1 million letters written to the White House protesting the plan and a Change.org petition with more than 5 million signatures.
Shortly after the Biden administration approved the plan, the environmental law group Land Justice and a trust firm in Alaska filed complaints against the Interior Department and its top officials, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies.
The plaintiffs requested that the judge grant a preliminary ruling, as the court considered the reasons that would stop the construction.
On Monday, federal Judge Sharon Gleason in the District Court of Alaska ruled in favor of the federal government and the oil company ConocoPhillips in allowing the construction of the project to continue as the judge’s process plays out, noting the operations that are planned for the coming months. – the construction of the site and the infrastructure around it – “do not include the extraction of any oil and gas”.
In their lawsuit, environmental groups argue that the Biden administration’s analysis, which concluded the plan will not have a major impact on the environment or the climate crisis, is flawed and violates federal law.
The lawsuits relate to the effects on endangered species, including polar bears, that are in the region where the Project Willow power project would be built. Justice lawyers wrote that the consultations underlying the Endangered Species Act approval of the jumps “are illegal because they do not consider the impact of carbon emissions on threatened species.”
Federal agencies “have not considered how increased greenhouse gas emissions from salamanders may affect the survival and recovery of these ice-dependent species or their critical habitat,” the lawyers wrote.
But in the short term, Gleason concludes that the potential environmental damage of the construction phase of the project does not outweigh the damage – financial and otherwise – that could be incurred if the pre-emption is granted.
“The court further determined that Plaintiffs have not proven that irreparable injury to their members is likely if the Winter 2023 Construction Operations proceed,” Gleason wrote in Monday’s decision.
Eric Grafe, deputy attorney general for the Alaska Regional Office of Land Management, said in a statement that while he had not expected this outcome, “our court battle continues.”
“We will do everything in our power to protect animals, wildlife and people from this dangerous carbon bomb,” Grafe said. “Climate scientists have warned that we have less than seven years to get it right on climate change, and in three decades we can’t afford to drill for oil because it will only open the door to fossil fuel extraction.”
ConocoPhillips and the federal government have argued that an environmental analysis conducted by federal officials shows that decades of big oil projects will not do serious air and environmental damage.
The area where the project is proposed holds up to 600 million barrels of oil. It would take years for the oil to reach the market since the project was still being built. The Biden administration’s own environmental analysis concluded that the plan would generate enough oil to pay off 9.2 million metric tons of coal-heating carbon per year — the equivalent of adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads.
Environmental groups have previously been involved in the Willows Project debate before a judge assigned to this case. In 2021, Gleason will vacate ConocoPhillips’ federal willow permit, saying that an environmental review by the Trump administration was carried out on a plan that did not consider key climate and wildlife impacts in the area.
Gleason said at the time that the Trump administration’s review did not include enough analysis on the planet-warming potential of emissions and left out details on the proposal’s possible effects on polar bears.
Although some indigenous groups were strongly opposed to the project due to environmental and health concerns, the plan was also successful among Alaska Natives, who said it would free up revenue and income in the remote region.