Before long the cheeps and honks of returning birdlife will enliven the wetlands and tundra just west of Nuiqsut, Alaska. But even before spring’s immense flocks of shorebirds and waterfowl arrive, the silence of the still-frozen Far North may be broken by the roar and clangor of heavy industry.
A federal judge will decide in the coming days whether to stop oil giant ConocoPhillips from blasting a gravel mine and using its contents to build a permanent road in the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the largest tract of public land in the country. The planned infrastructure is part of the company’s controversial $8 billion Willow project, which the Biden administration approved early last week. Three days later, environmental groups asked Judge Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court in Anchorage for an injunction to halt the work while she considers two lawsuits that aim to stop the entire project. ConocoPhillips began building ice roads immediately after receiving approval for Willow but agreed to delay gravel mining until April 4.
For Conoco, time is of the essence: The spring thaw will bring construction to a halt by late April, and any unfinished work will have to wait until next winter. But that brief spurt of construction would cause “irreparable harm” to the local environment, including by disturbing the caribou that Nuiqsut’s mostly Iñupiaq hunters rely on as a traditional food source, the plaintiffs argue.
The long-term impacts, environmentalists say, would be far greater. Project plans call not only for the mine and 25 miles of permanent road built from its gravel, but also ice roads, pipelines, an airstrip, an operations center, and a processing facility with a 98-megawatt, natural-gas-fueled power plant. And then there’s the product itself: 576 million barrels of oil extracted over 30 years, which when burned will produce 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of putting 1.7 million additional cars on the road for the life of the operation.
“This project is going to have great climate, ecological integrity, and environmental justice problems,” says David Krause, director of conservation for Audubon Alaska. If drilled, Willow’s wells would not be the first in the reserve, but they would be the farthest west and could provide industry with a stepping stone to major oil prospects that today are far from roads and pipelines, he says. “This expansion of infrastructure now makes those more westward prospects more economical and more viable.”
The current plan is for a smaller project than ConocoPhillips originally proposed and the Trump administration approved in 2020. The following year Judge Gleason overturned the government’s approval of that earlier plan, finding that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) didn’t adequately account for the greenhouse gas emissions that would result, or for legal protections given to the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a unit of the reserve that’s vitally important for birds, polar bears, and caribou.
The version of Willow approved by the Biden administration will include 3 drilling sites with up to 199 wells in total, rather than the 5 sites and 251 wells Conoco proposed. The company also agreed to relinquish leases covering 68,000 acres of land in the reserve. And Biden announced that he is closing the 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea that remained open to oil drilling. The Interior Department is also preparing a rule to “consider additional protections” for Teshekpuk Lake and other designated special areas that make up more than 13 million acres of the reserve, though the details have yet to be determined.
In a statement welcoming the project’s approval, ConocoPhillips chairman and CEO Ryan Lance said, “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security, all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities.”
But opponents say even the scaled-back project is unacceptably destructive. “It’s still a carbon bomb,” says Ian Dooley, an Earthjustice attorney representing environmental groups in one of the lawsuits. “It’s still in stark contrast to the Biden administration’s commitment on climate change and to address the climate crisis.”
Conservation advocates are particularly dismayed that one of the approved drilling sites is within the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, among the places where Biden said he’ll add stricter protections. “That’s hugely problematic and extremely concerning for us,” Krause says. The wetland complex around the lake hosts some 600,000 nesting shorebirds each year and is a molting site for up to 100,000 Greater White-fronted Geese, Brant, Cackling Geese, and Snow Geese. Krause says he’s also concerned about the impact on Yellow-billed Loon, a bird that nests in the area and has been considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. “There isn’t a comprehensive picture of the health of that species,” he says.
The BLM added measures to the Willow plan that it says will limit the impact to animals and to subsistence hunters who depend on them, but the government concedes that Nuiqsut residents could suffer from poorer hunting as a result of the project, along with air and noise pollution, which in turn could cause stress and mental health problems. “The effects on subsistence and sociocultural systems may be highly adverse and disproportionately borne by the Nuiqsut population,” the record of decision approving the project says.
Leaders of Nuiqsut, a community of some 500 people that sits about 35 miles from the Willow site and is surrounded by land leased to fossil fuel companies, say the government has repeatedly ignored their concerns. “BLM’s narrow focus on justifying why the project should go forward subverts any meaningful discussion or consideration,” they wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on March 3. (Haaland, the nation’s first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, did not sign the record of decision.) “Each measure is framed as an argument to let the project go forward and represents a monumental misunderstanding about what is required for us to survive.”
Alaska’s Indigenous communities aren’t a monolith, however, and some support developing Willow. Fossil fuel revenue is a budgetary staple for the state and for Native communities on the North Slope, though it has been dwindling for years. In a reflection of oil’s central economic role, the state’s full congressional delegation met with Biden to argue in Willow’s favor—not only Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, but also Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat and the first Alaska Native elected to Congress.
Willow’s potential to ease Alaska’s budget woes is a matter of debate, but there’s no doubt that its climate impacts won’t stop at the state border: The project’s emissions will be roughly equivalent to running two coal-fired power plants throughout its 30-year lifespan. That output might seem relatively modest in a global context—China now green-lights about two coal plants each week, for example—but advocates say that such logic facilitates a planetary death by a thousand cuts while allowing leaders to sidestep accountability. Biden’s approval of Willow feels particularly like a betrayal to climate activists because of an unequivocal pledge he made on the campaign trail: “No more drilling on federal lands, period,” Biden said at a 2020 town hall. “Period. Period. Period.”
Emissions from Willow would arrive at a time when scientists warn that any delay in shifting away from fossil fuels locks humanity and all other life on Earth into a future roiled by worsening disasters, extreme heat, and ecological unraveling. “Humanity is on thin ice—and that ice is melting fast,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday as the International Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that global leaders have not done enough, and aren’t planning to do enough, to avoid catastrophic warming. “Our world needs climate action on all fronts—everything, everywhere, all at once.”
Although the BLM updated its accounting of greenhouse gas emissions after Judge Gleason rejected the earlier Willow plan, plaintiffs in the two lawsuits say the government still isn’t fully reckoning with the cumulative climate pollution that would result from the development. “In a nutshell that’s really about not looking at this project as the hub that it really is, that ConocoPhillips has stated that it is, that ConocoPhillips has quoted to its investors as being key to infrastructure development in the Western Arctic,” Dooley says.
The groups also argue that the BLM failed to consider plan alternatives, such as not allowing drilling in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and other extra-sensitive sites, that would be less damaging to the environment and North Slope communities.
Similar arguments convinced Judge Gleason to throw out the Trump-approved Willow plan, but that doesn’t mean they will this time, says Deborah Sivas, a professor of environmental law at Stanford Law School. “It makes it a harder challenge each time you go back on the same project where the agency has had the chance to fix some of its mistakes,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t prevail.” And while Sivas says courts have become less likely in recent years to grant injunctions like the one plaintiffs are now requesting, “I think they have a shot at getting it here, given the magnitude of impacts if this project starts rolling.”
If they don’t, heavy machines will rumble to life and begin scooping gravel from the tundra in just a few days.