A hotly contested permit allowing ConocoPhillips to build a road and bridge to a new oil field is now in doubt after a federal judge ruled that regulators approved it without fully considering environmental impacts.
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, in a ruling issued Tuesday, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erred in the way it issued a wetlands-fill permit that ConocoPhillips needed to build a gravel road and a road-and-bridge link for its CD-5 oil field on the western North Slope.
Construction is already partly done, with the 6-mile access road and pad installed and some bridge work finished over the winter, ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said.
However, the permit allowing that work is flawed, Gleason found, because the Corps -- which approved the permit in 2011 after previously rejecting ConocoPhillips' permit application -- failed to justify its decision to skip a supplemental environmental impact statement. The Corps should have considered further study to weigh modifications to ConocoPhillips' plan and potential impacts to a North Slope environment already being altered by climate change, Gleason said in her ruling.
The Corps offered "only minimal explanation" for its decision that there was no need for a supplemental study to add to a 2004 environmental analysis, Gleason said in her ruling.
The Corps "failed to articulate a satisfactory explanation ... for its decision to forgo preparation of an SEIS to address changes to the CD-5 project," she said. "The court concludes, therefore, that the Corps' decision was arbitrary."
A lawsuit challenging the permit was filed last year by seven residents of Nuiqsut, the Inupiat village closest to the development.
To ConocoPhillips, the road and bridge are essential links needed to make practical any development in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, the 23 million-acre unit of federal land that lies west of the North Slope's other developed oil fields. ConocoPhillips has other oil-field projects deeper in the reserve that the company expects to develop as long as there is a surface-transportation and pipeline link to CD-5.
To environmentalists and the Native plaintiffs, the road and bridge would imperil the Colville River, one of the Arctic's most ecologically important rivers. They argue that ConocoPhillips' road and bridge plans will impose new development sprawl on the western North Slope, breaking an earlier promise by predecessor company Arco Alaska Inc. to develop the Colville area without roads over the sensitive tundra.
The Corps initially denied ConocoPhillips' wetlands-fill permit application. In 2010, the agency ruled the oil company should use other means - an underground pipeline drilled horizontally beneath the river - to link the new CD-5 field to existing oil-field facilities at the Alpine field.
ConocoPhillips, after appealing the rejection, altered its construction plan, whittling the amount of affected wetlands from 61.1 acres to 58.5 acres and repositioning the planned bridge sections over portions of the braided Colville. Several Alaska politicians and corporations weighed in on ConocoPhillips' behalf, arguing that development of CD-5 and other fields farther west was impossible without the road and bridge link.
The Corps in late 2011 approved the permit for the modified project.
Whether the Corps will have to complete an after-the-fact supplemental environmental impact statement was unknown on Wednesday. Gleason did not require one, but ordered the parties to submit information to be used to craft a remedy to what she identified as the permit's flaw.
Vicki Clark of Trustees for Alaska, the law firm representing the plaintiffs, said the Corps' permit reversal in 2011 was the result of political pressure. Gleason's ruling is "definitely a victory for the Arctic and also the people who rely on the resources there," Clark said.
Lowman said ConocoPhillips is reviewing the ruling. The company plans to complete construction and start CD-5 production by the end of 2015, she said.
Officials from the Corps and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment late Wednesday.
By YERETH ROSEN