ConocoPhillips' $8 Billion Willow Project Approvals Upheld by US Judge

(Reuters) — A federal judge in Alaska upheld U.S. approvals for ConocoPhillips’ multibillion-dollar Willow oil and gas drilling project in the state’s Arctic on Nov. 9, rejecting environmental and indigenous groups' concerns that the project poses too large of a climate threat.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage dismissed a lawsuit filed by environmental and indigenous groups challenging the $8 billion project's approvals, which the U.S. Interior Department had issued in March. Opponents claim the project would release hundreds of millions of tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, aggravating climate change and damaging pristine wilderness.

Gleason said in her decision that the U.S. government had adequately analyzed how greenhouse gas emissions from the project would impact the climate and adequately considered how the project would impact endangered species like polar bears.

Erik Grafe, an attorney for Earthjustice, which challenged the approvals, called the decision disappointing but said environmental and indigenous groups are "considering all legal options" to continue the fight, including a potential appeal.

The Interior Department and ConocoPhillips didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Alaskan officials and the oil industry applauded the Interior's Bureau of Land Management signing off on the project in March, but the move was criticized by indigenous and environmental advocates, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic.

Those opponents said the 30-year project's approval conflicted with President Joe Biden's highly publicized efforts to fight climate change and shift to cleaner sources of energy.

The approvals give ConocoPhillips permission to construct three drill pads, 25.8 miles of gravel roads, an air strip and hundreds of miles of ice roads.

ConocoPhillips has said the project will produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak, and the federal government estimates that it could release over 260 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental and indigenous groups challenged the approvals in two lawsuits filed in March. They said the government didn't adequately account for the climate impact of those emissions or the project's harm to endangered species, among other concerns.

They said those deficiencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act's requirements that projects with significant environmental impacts receive thorough reviews, and other legal requirements.

Gleason refused to temporarily suspend the approvals in April, paving the way for initial construction this past winter.

The U.S. had argued in court that it thoroughly and adequately analyzed expected environmental impacts from the project, including greenhouse gas effects and potential alternatives.

The cases are Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic et al. v. Bureau of Land Management et al. and Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. Bureau of Land Management et al., in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, case Nos. 3:23-cv-00058 and 3:23-cv-00061.

For the plaintiffs: Erik Grafe, Ian Dooley and Carole Holley of Earthjustice and Bridget Psarianos and Suzanne Bostrom of the Trustees for Alaska

For the U.S.: Rickey Turner and Paul Turcke of the U.S. Department of Justice

For ConocoPhillips: Ryan Steen, Whitney Brown, Jason Morgan and Luke Sanders of Stoel Rives

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