Climate activists hold a demonstration against the Willow Project

Climate activists hold a demonstration against the Willow Project at the U.S. Department of Interior on November 17, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Sunrise AU)

Green Groups Sue to Fight Biden Approval of 'Illegal' Willow Project

"Permitting Willow to go forward is greenlighting a carbon bomb," said one campaigner. "It would set back the climate fight and embolden an industry hell-bent on destroying the planet."

Environmental groups filed two separate lawsuits on Tuesday and Wednesday to fight the Biden administration's decision to approve a massive fossil fuel drilling project on Alaska's North Slope, a step that opened the door to hundreds of millions of tons of additional planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.

The first lawsuit, filed by the public interest law firm Trustees for Alaska on behalf of six advocacy groups, accuses the Biden Interior Department and two of its agencies—the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service—of "violating their respective duties under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, and the Endangered Species Act" by greenlighting ConocoPhillips' Willow Project.

The legal challenge specifically faults the federal agencies for "failing to consider alternatives that would further reduce impacts to subsistence users, preclude drilling in sensitive ecosystems, or reduce greenhouse gas emissions or climate impacts."

"It further charges agencies for not taking a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts, as required by NEPA, including impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, air quality, polar bears, caribou, wetlands, and subsistence uses and resources," Trustees for Alaska said in a press release on Tuesday.

Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic—an Alaska indigenous group involved in the suit—said in a statement that "once again, we find ourselves going to court to protect our lives, our communities, and our future."

"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," said Maupin. "ConocoPhillips has made record profits year after year and hopes to continue to do so at the cost of our communities and future generations."

"The science is clear. We cannot afford any new oil or gas projects if we are going to avoid climate catastrophe."

On Wednesday, the Biden administration faced an additional lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of an alliance of conservation groups including Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Greenpeace USA.

Both lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.

"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 NRDC. "Permitting Willow to go forward is greenlighting a carbon bomb. It would set back the climate fight and embolden an industry hell-bent on destroying the planet."

The Wednesday lawsuit also charges the Biden administration with failing to fully examine alternatives to the project it formally approved earlier this week, ignoring months of protests from climate organizations.

Earthjustice noted that the options the administration considered "ranged only from allowing ConocoPhillips to develop 100% of the available oil to allowing it to develop 92% of the oil."

Natalie Mebane, the climate director for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement Wednesday that "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."

"The science is clear," said Mebane. "We cannot afford any new oil or gas projects if we are going to avoid climate catastrophe."

While the Biden Interior Department—headed by Deb Haaland, a former Willow opponent—has insisted that the version of the project it approved "subtantially reduces" the scope of ConocoPhillips' drilling operations, Earthjustice stressed Wednesday that the 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 thirty years."

"There is no question that the administration possessed the legal authority to stop Willow—yet it chose not to," said Erik Grafe, deputy managing attorney in Earthjustice's Alaska regional office. "It greenlit this carbon bomb without adequately assessing its climate impacts or weighing its options to limit the damage and say no."

"The climate crisis is one of the greatest challenges we face, and President Biden has promised to do all he can to meet the moment," Grafe added. "We're bringing today's lawsuit to ensure that the administration follows the law and ultimately makes good on this promise for future generations."

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