U.N. rapporteurs and Patagonia take Willow opposition to new level

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.)

The ConocoPhillips oil drilling site on the North Slope known as the Willow Project has drawn criticism from around the country, primarily because of the implications to the global climate from pumping more fossil fuel out of the ground, burning it for energy and putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Now, with a legal challenge still pending in court, even the United Nations Human Rights Council wants to get involved.

Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin has more.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Casey Grove: Liz, the U.N. Human Rights Council? Really? What’s the deal with that?

Liz Ruskin: Well, it’s the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Climate Change. They’ve asked the judge hearing the legal challenge for permission to file a friend of the court brief in the lawsuit, which was filed by environmental groups and other groups trying to stop the Willow Project.

CG: What’s a rapporteur?

LR: Yeah, it’s a funny U.N. word, right? Rapporteurs are independent experts who do factfinding in countries suspected of human rights abuses. They aim to bring global condemnation to wrongdoing. In this case, they want to advise the judge on the international human rights implications of Willow, which they contend would do a lot to aggravate the climate crisis.

CG: OK, what does their brief say?

LR: They say Willow, because of all the oil it would produce, would impair America’s ability to fulfill its obligations to cut back on carbon emissions, and by putting so much oil on the market, also undermine other countries’ abilities to meet their climate change obligations.

CG: Interesting. So this is a friend of the court brief, amicus brief, the judge doesn’t have to accept it, right?

LR: Yes, amicus briefs … are filed by people who are not parties to the case but want to weigh in with information they think the parties aren’t going to present. ConocoPhillips is objecting to this one. They say the U.N. rapporteurs aren’t really independent voices here, because the lawyers representing them have ties to some of the environmental groups trying to stop Willow. I believe the federal judge — that’s District Court Judge Sharon Gleason — has not yet decided whether to allow this brief. But to be honest, Casey, there are so many friend of the court briefs pending in this case that I’ve kind of lost track.

CG: That many friends? Who else is trying to weigh in?

LR: The Alaska (Congressional) Delegation. That’s the U.S. senators and Congresswoman Mary Peltola, who filed in favor of developing Willow. We’ve got a bunch of Peltola’s Democratic colleagues who want to weigh in against the project. And, interestingly, Patagonia, the outdoor gear company.

CG: Wait, what stake does Patagonia have in this? I’d assume they’re anti-Willow, but why do they want to be involved in this court filing?

LR: They say that, as climate change causes more wildfires, more extreme weather coastal erosion, it prevents people from recreating outdoors and buying Patagonia’s gear.

CG: OK, really? From from buying their stuff?

LR: Yeah, I mean, it says that they exist to get people out and enjoying the outdoors, and climate change would tend to diminish the outdoor recreation industry, of which Patagonia is a part.

CG: OK, OK. So all of these different groups want to weigh in on the lawsuit. What’s the message that you’re seeing here?

LR: Well, I find it interesting that opposition to Alaska oil development, specifically Arctic oil development, it used to be mostly about what it means to the surface of that place and the wildlife that use it and the people that depend on the wildlife. And we still see that a few miles to the east, in the opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the opposition to Willow really centers on the climate impact, and that’s a global issue, so we have a more global cast of characters here.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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