“Beyond the illegality of Willow’s approval, Interior’s decision to greenlight the project in the first place moved us in the opposite direction of our national climate goals in the face of the worsening climate crisis.”
A federal judge in Anchorage ruled Thursday that ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope can proceed, rejecting a pair of lawsuits arguing that the Biden administration failed to adequately consider the initiative’s impact on the climate, local communities, and wildlife before approving it earlier this year.
Willow is the largest proposed oil and gas drilling project on public lands in U.S. history, and it comes at a time when scientists are warning that any new fossil fuel extraction is incompatible with preventing catastrophic planetary warming.
But despite warnings about Willow’s potentially devastating impact, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason—an Obama appointee—deemed the Biden administration’s environmental assessments of the project sufficient and in line with federal law. The ruling was handed down a day after a U.N.-backed report cautioned that fossil fuel expansion plans by the world’s top producers are “throwing humanity’s future into question.”
Climate groups voiced strong disagreement and outrage in response to Gleason’s decision, which gives ConocoPhillips a green light to resume construction of the massive project next month.
“This decision is bad news not just for our clients, but for anyone who cares about the climate and future generations,” said Bridget Psarianos, senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, which sued the Biden Interior Department on behalf of the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and others.
“The Biden administration added a little more window dressing when it rubber-stamped the previous Trump approvals, but Interior handed out permits without even looking at options that would reduce the impact on local people or preclude drilling in sensitive ecosystems,” Psarianos added. “It again did not consider the accumulation of impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, nor the way those accumulations harm people, animals, habitat, and the planet in deep and tangible ways.”
In March, the Biden Interior Department—headed by Deb Haaland, who criticized the proposed Willow project when she was in Congress—approved what it characterized as a scaled-back version of the ConocoPhillips drilling initiative, drawing protests and criticism from environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and the United Nations.
The administration approved the project with three drilling sites instead of the five that ConocoPhillips wanted. But even the smaller version of Willow will be disastrous for the climate, green groups argued.
According to Earthjustice, which sued the administration on behalf of several climate organizations, the approved project “will still 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.”
“While today’s ruling is disappointing, we are entirely confident in our claims, and plan to appeal to the higher court,” Erik Grafe, deputy managing attorney in Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office, said in a statement Thursday. “Beyond the illegality of Willow’s approval, Interior’s decision to greenlight the project in the first place moved us in the opposite direction of our national climate goals in the face of the worsening climate crisis.”
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