Work on ConocoPhillips Oil Project in Western Arctic Challenged in Court

Emergency Appeal Filed With 9th Circuit to Block Willow Project

by Tim Donaghy

February 5, 2021

If President Biden and his administration are serious about combating the climate crisis and prioritizing a transition to renewable energy then it’s time for all the Arctic drilling games to stop

Conservation groups filed an appeal and plan to request an emergency order today in the 9th Circuit Court Appeals to block ConocoPhillips’ work on its Willow oil and gas drilling project in the Western Arctic. They had sued the Trump administration in December for failing to study climate change and other impacts before approving the project’s final development plan.

Approval of the massive Willow project was included in a list of actions President Biden ordered agencies to review on his first day in office. But the Trump administration had rushed through permits for ConocoPhillips to begin work on Feb. 2 on its last day in office, setting up the need for the courts to intervene.

“We are hopeful that the court will put us back on the right path and stop the Trump administration’s last-minute effort to allow work on this environmentally reckless project to begin,” said Earthjustice attorney Jeremy Lieb. “The Willow project would have a disastrous impact on the pristine and culturally important landscape of the Western Arctic region and would escalate the global climate crisis.”

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Last week they sought an injunction from a federal judge in Alaska, which was denied. The groups’ filing cited the recent precedent successfully blocking the Liberty offshore Arctic drilling project for failing to properly study climate change impacts.

“The courts should keep rejecting the Trump administration’s reckless approach to approving Arctic drilling projects that ignore climate change. We’re hopeful this terrible project can be stopped, either by the courts or the Biden administration’s review,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This country is finally waking up to the urgent need for climate action and protecting endangered species. It’s time to protect the Western Arctic and the rest of our undisturbed wild places.”

ConocoPhillips wants to construct five drill sites in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, public lands that provide essential wildlife habitat for polar bears, migratory birds, caribou and other iconic species. Willow would permanently scar the largest undeveloped area in the United States and jeopardize the health and traditional practices of nearby Indigenous communities.

“We are hopeful that the appellate court rejects another attempt by Trump to give unlawful handouts to the fossil fuel industry,” said Hallie Templeton, deputy legal director for Friends of the Earth. “The decision from the lower court was a disappointing setback — for climate resiliency, science, and federal conservation laws. We will do everything we can to protect our vulnerable Arctic region, its wildlife and its communities.”

If constructed the Willow project could account for about half of all Alaska North Slope oil production, producing between 160,000 and 200,000 barrels per day. Over 30 years it would produce an estimated 590 million barrels of oil — enough to generate approximately 260 million tons of CO2 equivalent once consumed.

“If President Biden and his administration are serious about combating the climate crisis and prioritizing a transition to renewable energy then it’s time for all the Arctic drilling games to stop,” said Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace. “Rejecting destructive projects like Willow sets us up to create a just, green and peaceful future where people and the planet thrive.”

The lawsuit notes the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to scrutinize the climate change impacts of ConocoPhillips’ decades-long oil and gas drilling plan. In approving the project, the agency ignored the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offered unsupported and inaccurate greenhouse gas emissions estimates.

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 for the Willow project would involve using giant chillers to refreeze thawing permafrost to help ensure a solid drilling surface.

Media Contacts: Jeremy Lieb, Earthjustice, (907) 792-7104, [email protected]
Kristen Monsell, Center for Biological Diversity, (914) 806-3467, [email protected]
Tyler Kruse, Greenpeace USA, (808) 741-279, [email protected]
Erin Jensen, Friends of the Earth, (727) 504-716, [email protected]
Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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