Judge Halts Massive Alaska Oil Project Over Climate Concerns

A federal judge has blocked construction on a controversial drilling plan in the Alaskan Arctic that would have sucked an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil per day out of the ground. 

The Willow Drilling Plan, a $6 billion oil expansion proposed by crude oil producer ConocoPhillips and approved by the Trump administration is dead (at least for the moment) after widespread backlash for its potential impact on Alaskan wildlife. Despite fervent opposition from environmentalists and Indigenous groups, the project was one of few Trump-era oil exploration projects that had continued support from the Biden Administration (amid the administration’s pledge to transition the country away from fossil fuels.) 

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Slated for Alaska’s North Slope in the northernmost part of the state, it would have allowed for construction of up to five drill sites and required the development of 37 miles of new gravel roads, seven bridges, an airstrip and 575.4 miles of ice roads and 315.9 miles of pipelines to produce about 590 million barrels of oil over 30 years. That’s enough to generate around 250 million tons of CO2 equivalent if consumed.

The project received permits from the Department of the Interior in October, and its nine-year construction process was originally slated to begin last winter. It also had the support of the Alaska state government, which intervened on the side of ConocoPhillips during the lawsuit in April, citing its merits for the state economy.

But U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason put a stop to that in a written order filed yesterday that reversed the approval, saying that the permits had been issued without correct estimates of its emissions impact. 

“BLM’s exclusion of foreign greenhouse gas emissions in its alternatives analysis in the Environmental Impact Statement was arbitrary and capricious,” the decision reads. 

Gleason was ruling on a lawsuit that several conservation groups—including the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace—filed against the BLM last December for underestimating the harm that the plan would have on Arctic wildlife.

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The ruling is also a win for Indigenous communities, who have opposed the project for the risk it posed to ecosystems and the traditional ways of life that depend on them.  

“This is a huge deal,” Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of the Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the Anchorage Daily News on Wednesday. “This will actually stop the entire project, they will have to do everything over again.” 

It is possible that ConocoPhillips will appeal the decision, a move that would likely garner support from Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, who expressed his disappointment over the order in a statement issued Wednesday. 

“This is a horrible decision,” said Dunleavy, a longtime friend to the fossil fuel industry. “Make no mistake, today’s ruling from a federal judge trying to shelve a major oil project on American soil does one thing: outsources production to dictatorships and terrorist organizations.” 

But conservationists say nixing the project protects Alaskan ecosystems that are already vulnerable under the growing threat of the climate crisis. The Willow project would have invaded public lands on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that serve as home to polar bears, migratory birds, and caribou, the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a statement on the lawsuit in December.

“Willow would permanently scar the largest undeveloped area in the United States and jeopardize the health and traditional practices of nearby Indigenous communities,” the statement reads. 

“This is a huge victory for our climate and polar bears. It’s a message to the Biden administration that Arctic drilling threatens our climate and vulnerable species. This project never should have been approved and it can’t be defended,” Kristen Monsell, oceans program litigation director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity told Motherboard.

“Any reasonable, comprehensive review would show that this project would be a disaster for our climate, local communities, and wildlife,” Monsell continued. “Arctic oil needs to stay in the ground.”