Conservation groups said Tuesday they have filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop approval of the massive Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope that was announced by the Biden administration a day earlier.
Nonprofit environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska filed the 63-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on behalf of the groups.
The suit asserts that the Interior Department and its agencies violated an array of laws when authorizing the project sought by ConocoPhillips in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The groups filing the lawsuit are the Alaska Wilderness League, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Environment America, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic.
“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. “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.”
A spokesperson with the Interior Department on Tuesday said the agency had no comment on the filing.
“The Willow project’s development began in 2017 and has followed a nearly five-year-long regulatory process overseen by the Bureau of Land Management,” Rebecca Boys, a spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips Alaska, said in a statement. “We believe the (Bureau of Land Management) and cooperating agencies have conducted a thorough process that satisfies all legal requirements.”
“The final (environmental review) addresses the deficiencies identified in the prior (review) that was the subject of the federal district court remand in 2021,” Boys said.
Willow, the biggest oil project in Alaska in more than two decades, has been the subject of intense criticism from environmental groups, who call it a “carbon bomb.” It is expected to cost $8 billion to build, and expected to produce about 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years, valued at about $45 billion at today’s oil prices. Alaska politicians, businesses, many North Slope leaders and unions have lobbied fiercely for the project, saying it would support the state’s struggling economy and Indigenous communities.
A speedy decision in the case could prevent ConocoPhillips from working on the project in the short North Slope construction season that ends in April, pushing back work until next winter and delaying what’s already considered a six-year construction timeline. The company said Monday following the project’s approval that it will immediately begin building gravel roads.
The conservation groups on Tuesday said the Biden administration granted approval for the project despite acknowledging and failing to mitigate known harms to Arctic communities, public health, wildlife and the climate. They said the approval continues to violate many of the same laws violated in a 2020 Trump-era approval that had been rejected by the federal court in 2021.
Members of Alaska’s congressional delegation said Monday that they anticipated a swift effort by conservation groups to try to stop Willow. They said they think the Biden administration has a strong case, given that deficiencies in the project were addressed after U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason rejected a project approved during the Trump administration, leading to a second environmental review of the project under the Biden administration. That second review led to the smaller project announced on Monday that allows up to three drilling sites, not the five that ConocoPhillips had originally sought.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that she hopes the case is seen as “frivolous” so the project can quickly proceed.
Gravel road-building work was delayed at Willow in 2021 in a ruling by a federal appeals panel as part of the previous lawsuit against Willow.
The environmental groups on Tuesday said people in Nuiqsut, the village closest to the project, would endure increased air pollution, repeated blasting for gravel mining, and continued rapid industrialization that would cause harm to physical and mental health.
The lawsuit argues that the federal government violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws. It says Interior failed to consider alternatives that would further reduce impacts to subsistence users, prevent drilling in sensitive ecosystems, or reduce greenhouse gas emissions or climate impacts.
Earthjustice plans to file an additional lawsuit against Willow shortly, the groups’ statement said.
Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said in a prepared statement: ”There is no question that the administration possessed the legal authority to stop Willow — yet it chose not to. It greenlit this carbon bomb without adequately assessing its climate impacts or weighing its options to limit the damage and say no. We are committed to ensuring that the administration follows the law and ultimately makes good on this promise for future generations.”
Daily News reporter Riley Rogerson contributed from Washington.