Willow oil project approved, challenged by environmental lawsuits

Peltola: Now, it’s on us here in Alaska to make sure that we make the best of this opportunity

While the Biden administration has approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil exploration in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), conservation entities, backed by Alaska Native people who would be directly impacted by the project, have filed lawsuits to stop it from happening.

The long-term oil drilling venture in an area estimated to hold up to 600 million barrels of oil, would meet the constant demand for oil, while delivering substantial tax revenues to the federal government and state coffers heavily dependent on those oil dollars.

“Willow is finally reapproved, and we can almost literally feel Alaska’s future brightening because of it,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Alaska is “now on the cusp of creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues” and improving the quality of life in Alaska, she said.

Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, said they welcomed the administration’s decision reapproving the project.

“This was Alaska at its very best, with ConocoPhillips, Alaska Native leaders, labor leaders, our unanimous state Legislature, and so many more joining with the delegation to do everything we could to make this happen,” Murkowski said.

Federal approval of the Willow project “is critically important for Alaska’s economy, good-paying jobs for our families, and the future prosperity of our state,” said Sullivan. “This decision is also crucial for our national security and environment. Producing much-needed American energy in Alaska with the world’s highest environmental standards and lowest emissions enhances the global environment.”

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“Now, it’s on us here in Alaska to make sure that we make the best of this opportunity—that we use the revenues and jobs and economic opportunity from this project to make investments in the future of Alaska,” said Peltola. “We need to build up our schools, our housing stock, our rural internet and electric grids, and more, in order to make this a truly 21st-century economy. We can make Alaska a national and global example of what an energy bridge to the future truly looks like, and I am looking forward to meeting this challenge.”

Even before the official announcement that the Biden administration had greenlighted the project, The New York Times was reporting on March 12 that Alaska lawmakers and oil executives had been putting intense pressure on the White House to approve the project. Still, the Biden administration cautioned that it would bar or limit drilling in nearly 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea and limit drilling in over 13 million acres of the NPR-A.

Those restrictions were not enough to satisfy Trustees for Alaska, which filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on March 14 on behalf of six environmental groups, charging the Interior Department, multiple agencies, and agency officials with violating the law. Plaintiffs in the public interest law firm’s case are Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Environment America, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society.

“Once again, we find ourselves going to court to protect our lives, our communities, and our future,” said Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic. “The Biden administration’s approval of the ConocoPhillips Willow project makes no sense for the health of the Arctic or the planet and comes after numerous calls by local communities for tribal consultation and real recognition of the impacts to land, water, animals, and people. ConocoPhillips has made record profits year after year and hopes to continue to do so at the cost of our communities and future generations The true cost of Willow is rising health issues like respiratory illnesses and rare cancer clusters all over the Arctic.”

The lawsuit’s contentions include one that charges agencies with violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to consider alternatives that would further reduce impacts to subsistence users, preclude drilling in sensitive ecosystems, or reduce greenhouse gas emissions or climate impacts. It further charges agencies for not taking a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts, as required by NEPA, including impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, air quality, polar bears, caribou, wetlands, and subsistence uses and resources.

Earthjustice filed litigation the next day, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, saying approval of an enormous new carbon source undermines President Biden’s promises to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and transition the country to clean energy.

The federal Bureau of Land Management’s record of decision approving Willow essentially greenlights ConocoPhillips’ desired blueprint while ignoring pleas from around 5.6 million people, including the nearby village of Nuiqsut, Earthjustice said, asking the federal government to halt Willow.

The Earthjustice lawsuit said the project would add about 260 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere over the next 30 years, the equivalent of an extra two million cars on the road each year for 30 years.

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