Federal judge rules controversial Willow oil drilling project in Alaska can move forward

A federal judge in Alaska dealt another blow to climate and Indigenous groups attempting to stop ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil drilling project, ruling Thursday that construction could move forward.

The project on Alaska’s North Slope – an area that holds 600 million barrels of oil – galvanized a groundswell of online opposition from youth concerned about climate impacts when the Biden administration approved it earlier this year.

In a Thursday ruling, Judge Sharon Gleason dismissed the groups’ claims and ruled that the federal environmental analysis underpinning the project’s approval is sound – meaning the project can go forward with construction starting this winter on Alaska’s North Slope.

The groups intend to appeal the ruling.

“While today’s ruling is disappointing, we are entirely confident in our claims, and plan to appeal to the higher court,” Alaska-based Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said in a statement. “Beyond the illegality of Willow’s approval, Interior’s decision to greenlight the project in the first place moved us in the opposite direction of our national climate goals in the face of the worsening climate crisis.”

Locally, the project has both supporters and detractors among Alaska Natives; it will be an economic juggernaut and bring considerable tax revenue to Alaska’s remote North Slope.

“Our self-determination that comes with those opportunities is going to be huge,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told CNN. “It’s going to give us a little bit of hope for the future that we have a little bit more time to keep moving things in the right direction.”

The drilling operation will pump oil out of one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. The major drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope has galvanized opposition from young people like few others have.

Online activism against the project surged in the week leading up to the project’s approval; more than one million letters were written to the White House in protest, and a Change.org petition gained millions of signatures.

At the time, activists warned President Joe Biden to heed the voice of youth voters – who polling shows are more likely to be concerned about climate impacts. Advocates called the project a “climate bomb” that would harm local habitats and contribute to further melting in the Arctic, including polar bear habitat in Alaska.

Grafe, the deputy managing attorney in Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office, told CNN his organization anticipates ConocoPhillips will start making ice roads in December and blast gravel in January to start construction of gravel roads – after which construction could begin in earnest. Grafe said the longer construction season would also disturb more wildlife.

“That’s the stuff that is most harmful, because it’s permanent, and because of the loud noises and more traffic and its effect on caribou and all sorts of things in the summer,” Grafe said.

ConocoPhillips and the federal government have argued the environmental analysis federal officials conducted showed the decades-long oil project wouldn’t do serious climate and environmental damage.

The Biden administration’s own environmental analysis concluded the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year – equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads.

Even though Gleason declined to stop spring construction while the legal challenge was heard, environmental groups have had past successes in her courtroom. In 2021, Gleason vacated ConocoPhillips’ federal Willow permits, saying the Trump administration’s environmental review failed to consider key climate and environmental impacts to wildlife in the area.

This story has been updated.

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