Willow opponents try again, this time in a U.S. appeals court, to block ConocoPhillips oil development in Alaska

Protestors at the White House in 2023 demonstrate opposition to the Willow oil drilling project on the North Slope. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

ConocoPhillips has already begun to develop its Willow oil leases in the western Arctic, but environmental organizations and a group of Inupiat people opposed to the project are still trying to stop it.

Attorneys for both groups of opponents argued at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the federal agencies made mistakes when they approved the project.

Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe argued that the government should have fully considered lower-impact options. Instead, Grafe said, the agency clung to the idea that it had to allow development on the whole field, and only at the end chose to trim the proposal slightly.

“The decision that they reached was constrained by the lack of alternatives they looked at,” he said.

The groups also claim the agencies didn’t adequately consider the climate impact Willow would have on the region’s polar bears and other animals listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The government’s attorney, Amy Collier, said experts at the agencies did consider that an increase in greenhouse gas emissions would cause the Arctic to lose sea ice, which the region’s polar bears depend on. But, she said, the link wasn’t direct. They didn’t have evidence that the specific emissions resulting from the Willow project would shrink sea ice in this part of the Arctic, hurting this particular population of polar bears. 

Willow has become a flashpoint for climate activists and others who say President Biden’s approval of it is incompatible with his climate goals. It’s the largest new project on federal land anywhere in the country and would produce 180,000 barrels a day.

ConocoPhillips attorney Jason Morgan said the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of Willow was the logical result after years of careful planning and study.

“So how could BLM then come back and say: ‘I know we’ve zoned it open to surface development. I know we’ve issued you leases and charged you millions of dollars for these leases. But we’re not going to allow you to develop this area, even though your proposal complies with all of the stipulations,’?” he said.

Willow has broad support from tribal and government leaders on the North Slope. The region is projected to reap billions of dollars in revenue sharing and local taxes over 30 years

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed the final quoted statement to a different attorney. The speaker was Jason Morgan, not Kuukpik Corporation attorney Patrick Munson. The story also misspelled Erik Grafe’s name.

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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