Climate campaigners on Tuesday remained resolute in their fight against ConocoPhillips' Willow oil project in Alaska—even after a federal judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction sought by environmental and Indigenous groups behind a pair of legal challenges.
"It's heartbreaking that ConocoPhillips has been allowed to break ground on Willow before the court has fully assessed whether the project is lawful," said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement.
"But this case isn't over, and we'll keep fighting to protect struggling Arctic wildlife and our climate from this disastrous project," Monsell vowed. "We're hopeful we'll get the Willow project's approval thrown out once again."
After the Biden administration last month controversiallyapproved the 30-year Big Oil project, two coalitions of advocacy organizations swiftly filed separate lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.
One case is led by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, and Natural Resources Defense Council; the other was filed by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Alaska Wilderness League, Environment America, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club, Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, and the Wilderness Society.
"Allowing ConocoPhillips to bulldoze forward with construction of the largest oil and gas project on public lands before the lawsuits are settled is needlessly destructive."
In a 44-page order on Monday, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason—an appointee of former President Barack Obama—denied both coalitions' requests that the court halt construction.
"The court has weighed the environmental harm posed by the proposed winter 2023 construction activities against the economic damages, benefits to most subsistence users, and the state and federal legislative pronouncements of the public interest that would be impacted by a preliminary injunction prohibiting these construction activities at this time, and concludes that the balance of the equities and the public interest tip sharply against preliminary injunctive relief," she wrote. "The court has further determined that plaintiffs have not established that irreparable injury to their members is likely if winter 2023 construction activities proceed."
A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips said in a statement to CNN that "with this decision from the federal district court, we are able to immediately begin construction activities."
Trustees for Alaska lead staff attorney Bridget Psarianos noted that "the district court found in our prior 2020 lawsuit that winter road construction and gravel mining would do immediate and permanent harm to land and the community of Nuiqsut. It's no different this time."
"This is heartbreaking for all who want to protect local communities and prevent more devastating climate impacts in the Arctic and around the world," the lawyer added. "We will do everything we can to protect the region while the merits of our case get heard."
Those behind the other case were similarly disappointed but determined. Greenpeace USA climate campaign director Natalie Mebane declared that "allowing ConocoPhillips to bulldoze forward with construction of the largest oil and gas project on public lands before the lawsuits are settled is needlessly destructive."
Still, "we remain undeterred," said Defenders of Wildlife Alaska Program director Nicole Whittington-Evans. "We remain committed to protecting the western Arctic and look forward to the court's full consideration of the Willow project, including its impacts to polar bears threatened with extinction and massive carbon emissions that will worsen the climate crisis for decades to come."
President Joe Biden has faced intense criticism over his administration greenlighting Willow despite the climate campaign promises that helped him win in 2020. Green groups called the approval a "betrayal" and some Democrats on Capitol Hill warned that it "destroys our climate goals and undermines international climate ambition," leaving an "oil stain" on Biden's legacy.
"Although the White House and Department of Interior were not persuaded to stop Willow despite the advocacy of more than 5 million individuals, we are now using the power of the law to restore some balance," said Erik Grafe, deputy managing attorney in Earthjustice's Alaska regional office. "While this particular round of the legal challenge did not produce the outcome we had hoped for, our court battle continues."
"We will do everything within our power to protect the climate, wildlife, and people from this dangerous carbon bomb," Grafe pledged. "Climate scientists have warned that we have less than seven years to get it right on climate change, and we cannot afford to lock in three decades of oil drilling that will only serve to open the door to more fossil fuel extraction."