Biden Administration Faces Willow Oil Project Lawsuit

The Biden administration is being sued by a consortium of environmental organizations over its recent decision to approve a controversial new oil drilling project in Alaska.

Documents show the group is calling for the United States district court of Alaska to rule on the decision to approve three new sites as part of ConocoPhillips's Willow Project in the state's northernmost region, describing the decision as "arbitrary, capricious, and/or not in accordance with the law."

Environmentalists have viewed it as a betrayal of Joe Biden's pledges to push America toward lower carbon emissions and clean energy. However, supporters of the project say that it would boost U.S. energy security at a time when global oil markets are volatile, and would stimulate the state's economy by bringing jobs to the North Slope region.

The project also has widespread support from Alaskan lawmakers and representatives of local Native Alaskans.

Joe Biden Willow Project
Above, President Joe Biden delivers remarks on March 14, 2023, in Monterey Park, California. Inset: Climate activists hold a demonstration against the Willow Project at the U.S. Department of Interior on November 17, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Mario Tama/Jemal Countess/Getty Images

ConocoPhillips, Alaska's largest crude oil producer, proposed five drilling sites as part of its Willow Project, after making a "significant" new oil discovery in January 2017. On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted the go-ahead for three sites.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Interior said the company would cede 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the Natural Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) around the project site. The day before, it announced "sweeping" protections for up to 16 million acres of land and water in Alaska, including placing 2.8 million acres of the NPR-A off-limits indefinitely for oil and gas leasing.

However, environmental groups reacted angrily to the administration's decision, citing the new carbon emissions it would produce at a time when Biden is seeking to decarbonize the economy. The project is estimated to produce 278 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of its 30-year lifespan.

"It's shocking that Biden greenlit the Willow project despite knowing how much harm it'll cause Arctic communities and wildlife," Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. "It's clear that we can't count on Biden to keep his word on confronting climate change and halting drilling on public lands."

The lawsuit—brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC)—calls on the court to vacate the record of the decision by BLM approving the project, and compel the government to comply with environmental regulation.

It argues that the area, which is home to various indigenous species on both land and sea, is protected from undue environmental impacts under pre-existing legislation.

Lawyers for the organizations say that climate change is having an acute impact on the Arctic region, which the project would contribute to.

Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth, said it was "enraged" by the decision to approve the Willow Project, adding: "We can only hope that the court sees this for what it is: another unlawful, faulty, and disastrous decision that must be stopped."

The lawsuit noted that the BLM had already attempted to approve the project, when five drilling sites were proposed, in October 2020. This faced its own legal challenge and approval was struck down by a court in August 2021. However, the Biden administration has since limited the project's scope and vowed to increase conservation elsewhere in the state.

The legal complaint said that the BLM reconsidered the same options as it had before, and argues that an alternative "that would substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions" would "be reasonable and consistent with the project's purpose and need."

"The science is clear. We cannot afford any new oil or gas projects if we are going to avoid climate catastrophe," Natalie Mebane, climate director for Greenpeace U.S., said. "Approving what would be the largest oil extraction project on federal lands is incredibly hypocritical from President Biden, who in his State of the Union called the climate crisis an ​existential threat."

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The BP North Star oil station in the North Slope, the northernmost region of Alaska, as seen on June 6, 2003. The Willow project would see three new drilling stations built in the region. Damian Gillie/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

The lawsuit—which names several federal agencies and top officials, including Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior—also argues that the Willow Project would have "a myriad of direct impacts" on local wildlife, and notes that the BLM itself acknowledged it would restrict the resources local Native Alaskans use for subsistence.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Defenders of Wildlife's program director for Alaska, said the project "would further imperil climate-sensitive wildlife including threatened polar bears."

"We're asking the court to halt this illegal project and ensure the public knows its true climate impacts," said Christy Goldfuss, chief policy impact officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both she and Erik Grafe, an attorney in Earthjustice's Alaska office, described the project as a "carbon bomb."

The Department of the Interior declined to comment. Newsweek reached out to the Bureau of Land Management and the White House via email for a response.

Despite outcry from environmental activists, approval of the Willow Project was met with widespread support among Alaskan lawmakers. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, said "we can almost literally feel Alaska's future brightening because of it," while the state's other GOP senator, Dan Sullivan, described it as "critically important for Alaska's economy."

The BLM estimates the Willow Project could generate up to $17 billion in revenue for the federal and local governments, and ConocoPhillips estimates it would create between 2,000 and 2,500 construction jobs, as well as 300 permanent roles. The company said it would produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day—roughly 1.5 percent of total U.S. production.

Ahead of the approval, the Alaskan legislature passed a resolution supporting the approval of the project. It also received the support of Democrat Mary Peltola, Alaska's single House representative, who is Yup'ik.

Peltola told Newsweek that the project was an "essential step forward in our energy transition," adding: "Alaska is not an empty snow globe—people live here, and we have needs!"

While the lawsuit pointed to an impact on subsistence resources the project would have for indigenous communities, representatives of the Iñupiat thanked the Biden administration for showing "leadership."

In a joint statement, they said the Willow Project "represents a new opportunity to ensure our indigenous, Alaska Native communities' ten thousand years of history has a viable future." They cited the funding for infrastructure that the project will bring to the community through taxes, as well as the jobs it will create.

Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of Arctic Iñupiat, said the project "overwhelming benefits to Alaska Native communities while coexisting with our subsistence lifestyle."

Newsweek reached out to the Department of Commerce and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, both of which are named as defendants in the lawsuit, via email for comment.