Alaska in Brief

New lawsuit seeks to block development of Alaska’s Willow oil project

By: - March 14, 2023 5:15 pm
A northeastern portion of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. is seen from the air on June 28, 2014. ConocoPhillips' Willow project, which the company says would produce up to 180,000 barrels a day, is planned for this federal land unit. Because the project is on federal territory and not state territory, royalties from oil production would be split between the federal government and a special fund for communities on the North Slope. They would not go into the state treasury for general govenrment use. (Photo by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management)

A northeastern portion of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is seen from the air in June 2014. (Photo by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management)

A coalition of environmental groups filed suit Tuesday, seeking to halt development of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope.

The filing, from the Sovereign Iñupiat for A Living Arctic, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, among other organizations, says the Department of the Interior failed to properly consider the project’s impacts on polar bear habitat and asks U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason to issue an injunction halting the project until the federal government examines that issue.

The Biden administration approved construction of Willow, planned by ConocoPhillips Alaska for a portion of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, on Monday. An injunction would disrupt ConocoPhillips’ plans to make a final investment decision on the project later this year.

In a prepared written statement, the groups said that approval came even as the federal government was “acknowledging and failing to mitigate known harms to Arctic communities, public health, wildlife, and climate.”

The groups are being represented by the nonprofit law firm Trustees for Alaska. The environmental law firm Earthjustice said it will file a second challenge at a later date.

By email, Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said the Biden administration “greenlit this carbon bomb (Willow) without adequately assessing its climate impacts or weighing its options to limit the damage and say no. We are committed to ensuring that the administration follows the law and ultimately makes good on this promise for future generations.” 

Tuesday’s lawsuit had been expected; the groups involved successfully obtained an injunction in 2020 after a prior federal approval.

That victory forced the Interior Department to revise its environmental assessment for Willow, which will be Alaska’s largest oil development in decades. 

The revision led to Monday’s reapproval by the federal government. 

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said on Monday — one day before the lawsuit was filed — that he had already received commitments from the state of Alaska and the North Slope Borough that they will join in the federal government’s legal defense of the project.

“It’s going to be a big battle. And it’s probably going to happen any day,” he said.


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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected].