U..S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason said in a decision on Saturday that she will temporarily prevent ConocoPhillips from opening a gravel mine or building a gravel road at the Willow oil discovery, after conservation groups appealed her decision last week allowing the work.
The project is located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, near the Alaska Native village of Nuiqsut. It could produce 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years, estimates say.
Supporters argue that the project, if ConocoPhillips ultimately decides to produce oil there, will boost Alaska revenues and jobs. Opponents say it will harm the environment.
Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and other conservation groups are seeking to stop the project altogether.
The groups last week appealed Gleason’s Feb. 1 decision. They’re asking for an emergency order from the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals to stop this winter’s work.
Gleason’s latest decision said a “brief and limited” injunction to prevent the work is warranted. Her extension ends Feb. 20, or until the Ninth Circuit rules on the request, she said.
The court “remains confident” in its Feb. 1 decision, Gleason said in her 11-page ruling. But the Ninth Circuit may disagree with that decision, she added.
The back-and-forth over winter work at Willow will not resolve the conservation groups’ broader request to stop the project.
ConocoPhillips plans to break ground at the Willow mine site starting Friday, blasting away the surface to reach gravel, Gleason’s decision said. The company plans to haul gravel and start gravel road construction on March 12, she said.
Gleason said the work will “irreparably harm” the landscape and the ability of Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a Nuiqsut resident with Friends of the Earth, to use the area in an undisturbed state. Ahtuangaruak and others have traditionally used the area for hunting, according to her testimony in the case.
Gleason said she will allow ConocoPhillips to proceed with ice-road construction over the tundra. The conservation groups have not shown those, used for decades in winter in Alaska to support heavy vehicles, will irreparably hurt the environment, she said.
ConocoPhillips is expected to decide later this year if it will pay billions of dollars to develop Willow for oil production.