Willow Project ‘Climate Bomb’ is Gateway to More Oil, Gas Development in Fragile Arctic

Interview with Bridget Psarianos, senior attorney with Trustees for Alaska, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil drilling project on the North Slope of Alaska is perhaps the largest fossil fuel venture on U.S. federal lands. If and when it becomes operational, it will produce 180,000 barrels a day, or 629 million barrels of oil over the course of its 30-year lifetime. The Trump administration approved the project in October 2020. But in August 2021, a federal judge rejected it, ruling on a lawsuit filed by the group Trustees for Alaska due to the project’s harmful impacts on the climate, nearby communities and area wildlife.

President Biden and his administration conducted another environmental review in 2022 and on March 13 approved a somewhat scaled back version of the Willow Project. Biden’s controversial decision on Willow broke his 2020 campaign pledge to permit no new drilling on federal land. On April 3, a federal court judge ruled against environmental groups seeking to block preliminary construction on the Willow drilling project.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Bridget Psarianos, senior attorney with Trustees for Alaska, about the impacts the project would have and the second lawsuit the trustees have filed to try to stop it.

BRIDGET PSARIANOS: The real problem with Willow is I think the proposal is coming at a time where the science and our president himself has acknowledged that we need to do everything we can to reduce fossil fuel use and intake, and besides that too, it is proposed to be built very close to Teshekpuk Lake, and the Teshekpuk  Special Area. Special Areas are unique to the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, which is the formal name for this western Arctic area that we’ve been trying to protect for a long time. 

Teshekpuk Lake is, I believe, the largest lake in the Arctic in the world and it’s an incredibly important place for migratory birds, as well as a caribou herd that actually is non-migratory and stays in the area year-round. And all of these animals in turn are very important to the local community Nuiqsut whose former mayor, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, has been very outspoken against the project. 

One of the things that is really concerning to us, as folks who live here and work here and raise families here is Alaska is already on the front end of climate change. We’re seeing our glaciers recede. We’re seeing warmer winters. We’re seeing more wildfires in the summer. And that’s just in Anchorage. In Arctic Alaska, the situation is even more dire. 

The approval of this project is not just about Willow itself; as you noted earlier, Melinda, the Biden administration approved a smaller version of the project than Conoco originally proposed and they were definitely touting that in all of their press statements about their approvals to downplay the impacts of Willow by saying, “Well, we approved a smaller version.”

But we’ve been following this project for a number of years. We sued and won on a prior approval of the project and everything that has been shown to date – the government’s own statements and Conoco Phillips’ statements – are that Willow is a gateway to the western Arctic and that’s it’s going to catalyze and enable future oil and gas development even further west. 

That is, I think, one of the scariest things about this project is not just what was approved four weeks ago in and of itself. It’s the fact that Conoco is building an entirely new central processing facility and a spiderweb of roads and pads and pipelines that is designed to allow for even further oil and gas development moving further west into previously undeveloped areas that are really important for maintaining this balance of animals and people and healthy waterways and lands.

MELINDA TUHUS: One concern is that this activity will contribute to melting the permafrost, which has locked away methane for thousands of years, and methane heats the planet 100 times faster than carbon dioxide over a 10-year-period. So, when it melts, how can mushy land support the infrastructure that’s being built to do this project?

BRIDGET PSARIANOS: Conoco Phillips is actually going to use what are called thermo-siphons. It’s basically refrigeration, where they will be using these devices to refreeze the permafrost that’s directly under their gravel roads and gravel pads for the project because their own activities are melting the permafrost so fast that if they don’t do that, as you noted, by the end of the 30-year project life, yeah, it would probably sink into the ground.

MELINDA TUHUS: Bridget Psariano, please explain the basis for the lawsuit you have filed.

BRIDGET PSARIANOS: Our lawsuit is challenging the underlying decisions and the analysis. There’s a law called the National Environmental Policy Act, shorthanded as NEPA, that requires the government to assess the impacts of its actions, which includes permitting approvals, the Willow permit being a prime example of a federal action. 

They have to analyze the impacts of those actions on the human environment – everything from the environment itself, animals, water, air, lands and also the people who’ll be impacted. 

And they once again fast-tracked approving this project by putting Conoco’s bottom line ahead of their obligations under the law. And in particular, we’ve been arguing that they failed to look at alternatives to what Conoco proposed that would actually reduce environmental impacts, protect the surface resources of the western Arctic and failed to look at ways to minimize impacts to subsidence uses by Alaska natives. We’re also arguing that they failed to look closely at impacts to polar bears, who are listed under the Endangered Species Act and whose critical habitat is actually in the Willow project area.

For more information, visit Trustees For Alaska at trustees.org.

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