Conservation groups sue to block Biden-approved Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope

the Willow project
An exploration site at ConocoPhillips’ Willow prospect is seen from the air in the 2019 winter season. (Photo by Judy Patrick/provided by ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc.)

Six conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the federal government Tuesday, a day after the Biden administration approved the Willow project — the $8 billion ConocoPhilips oil development located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The lawsuit claims federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving Willow because of its potential impacts to sensitive Arctic environments, subsistence users and climate change.

Tim Woody, a spokesperson for one of the plaintiffs, The Wilderness Society, appeared on Alaska Public Media’s “Talk of Alaska” Tuesday. Woody said Willow runs counter to the administration’s goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. 

“Part of that means we don’t commit to long-term, massive oil and gas extraction projects that will drastically increase greenhouse gas emissions over such a long period of time,” he said.

Opponents have termed Willow a “carbon bomb.” The 600 million barrels of oil it’s expected to produce over 30 years equates to adding 2 million cars to the road each year.

The other plaintiffs include Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Alaska Wilderness League, Environment America, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, and the Sierra Club.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut — the closest village to the Willow site — has repeatedly condemned the project as bad for local residents’ health.

A map of the Willow development on Alaska's North Slope
This map from the Bureau of Land Management shows the site of the Willow development on the North Slope of Alaska. Willow’s drill sites are marked by squares. (Bureau of Land Management)

But many other Indigenous groups, including the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the North Slope Borough, support Willow. Nagruk Harcharek is president of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, based in Utqiagvik. He said on “Talk of Alaska” he looks forward to economic benefits in the form of jobs and dividends for locals on the North Slope. 

Harcharek added that he believes the project will not threaten subsistence hunting in the area.

“The subsistence Iñupiaq lifestyle that we live is important, it’s the most important for us,” he said. “So if there was ever a project that we thought would negatively impact that, in ways that would be irreparable, we would not be in support of that project.”

The approved version of Willow scaled the project back from five drilling pads to three to reduce potential impacts to caribou migration and subsistence users, according to the Interior Department.

As a concession to the Indigenous and environmental groups opposed to the project, the Biden administration also announced plans Monday to protect parts of the NPR-A and Arctic Ocean from any future development. 

Woody is skeptical those plans will ensure much. 

“They’re positive steps, we like them,” he said. “The problem is they’re what we call non-durable protections, meaning a future administration could overturn them and throw them out.”

Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil & Gas Association, said ConocoPhilips could apply to extend the project to more than three pads in the future.

“That’s always a possibility with any project approval. But I think at this point, they’re going to focus on what was approved … getting that done right and getting it done safely,” Moriarty said.

The three drill sites are projected to produce as much as 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

Both Harcharek and Woody expect that ConocoPhillips will begin work to ready the new pads for drilling within the next month.

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at Read more about Kavitha here.

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