Alaska Oil Drilling Project Blocked Ahead of Ninth Circuit Challenge

Conservation groups say a large-scale oil drilling project on 1.2 million acres in northern Alaska will exacerbate climate change and harm endangered species.

This undated aerial file photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a herd of caribou on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File)

(CN) — A federal judge has temporarily halted construction of a massive oil and gas drilling project in northern Alaska after conservation groups asked the Ninth Circuit on Friday to block the “environmentally reckless” plan.

The Center for Biological Diversity and its allies filed their Ninth Circuit appeal on Feb. 5 after U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason, a Barack Obama appointee, denied the groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction four days earlier.

At issue is the Willow Project, a plan to build hundreds of miles of gravel and ice roads along with five drill sties, one or two airstrips, a gravel mine site and up to 386 miles of pipelines in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. The project was approved by the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management in October 2020.

ConocoPhillips, which is leasing 1.2 million acres of land from the federal government, says the project could create hundreds of oil-drilling jobs and thousands of related construction jobs. The venture is expected to produce up to 200,000 barrels of oil daily and about 586 million barrels over 30 years. Environmental groups say that equates to 260 million tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide over the next three decades.

“The Willow project would have a disastrous impact on the pristine and culturally important landscape of the Western Arctic region and would escalate the global climate crisis,” said the conservation groups’ lawyer Jeremy Lieb of Earthjustice in a statement Friday.

The center and its allies sued to stop the project in federal court in Alaska on Dec. 21. They claimed the bureau failed to fully assess the project’s impact on climate change or its effect on wildlife, including caribou, northern sea otters, migratory birds and endangered polar bears.

Five days after she denied a request for an injunction, Gleason partly granted a new motion for an injunction pending appeal on Saturday.

In her first ruling, Gleason found the plaintiffs’ National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) claims were likely time-barred because they did not sue within 60 days after an environmental impact study for the project was issued in May 2018. The judge also found the groups failed to show that endangered species would suffer irreparable harm if the project moved forward because construction activities planned for this winter are outside of polar bears’ critical habitat.

“The decision from the lower court was a disappointing setback — for climate resiliency, science, and federal conservation laws,” said co-plaintiff Friends of the Earth’s deputy legal director Hallie Templeton of the judge’s first order denying the injunction.

In her Feb. 6 ruling, Gleason concluded the Ninth Circuit might find the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claim that the government failed to properly estimate global greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project. Gleason also found claims that the project will “destroy the natural setting of the area” and diminish plaintiffs’ enjoyment of the area is the type of injury that the Ninth Circuit has held “constitutes irreparable harm in similar contexts.”

Gleason’s order blocks ConocoPhillips from breaking ground at the Willow Mine Site Area 2, including blasting, surface mining or the use of other equipment to remove gravel. It also halts gravel-hauling and road construction. It does not prohibit the construction of seasonal ice roads and pads, or temporary construction platforms made of ice. The injunction will expire on Feb. 20 unless the Ninth Circuit decides to extend it.

The conservation groups say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reviewed the project’s potential impact on endangered species, relied on faulty assumptions when it concluded polar bears were unlikely to suffer substantial harm during the 30-year life of the project.

“We are hopeful that the appellate court rejects another attempt by Trump to give unlawful handouts to the fossil fuel industry,” Templeton added.

The conservation groups also say the project would permanently scar the largest undeveloped area in the United States and jeopardize the health and traditional practices of nearby Indigenous communities.

“This landscape and its values are central to the livelihood and traditional practices of the Iñupiaq people living in the region,” the groups stated in their December 2020 lawsuit.

Alaska has warmed faster than any U.S. state and twice as quickly as the global average since the mid-20th century, according to a 2019 report by the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbank. 

Approval of the Willow Project was one of several agency actions President Joe Biden ordered his administration to review on his first day in office.

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the environmental groups are “hopeful this terrible project can be stopped, either by the courts or the Biden administration’s review.”

A Bureau of Land Management spokesperson declined to comment and ConocoPhillips did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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