Energy

Federal appeals panel stops work on ConocoPhillips’ Willow project

A federal appeals court has sided with conservation and Indigenous groups and halted winter work at a major ConocoPhillips oil project on Alaska’s North Slope.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Saturday issued the six-page decision, by 9th Circuit Judges William Canby and Michelle Friedland, on Saturday.

The decision will halt on-the-ground work at Willow for the year, said Natalie Lowman, a spokeswoman with ConocoPhillips, in an email Sunday.

Winter activity at developing projects on Alaska’s North Slope is supported by ice roads that melt in the spring, sharply reducing on-the-ground activity for all but a handful of months. The project, among the most promising North Slope prospects, was expected to employ about 120 people this year.

Lowman did not say if the company plans to appeal the decision. Other questions must be answered later, she said.

Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and other groups sued last fall to stop the project, not just in winter, but altogether. They argue that federal agencies under the former Trump administration did not follow environmental laws before approving the project.

The Willow project is located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in northern Alaska, near the village of Nuiqsut.

ConocoPhillips had planned to break ground at a mine site early this month, blasting away the surface to reach gravel, according to court records. The company had planned to haul gravel and start gravel road construction in mid-March. If developed, the field could produce 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years, boosting state revenues and jobs, estimates say.

More recently, the groups sought a preliminary injunction to halt the winter activity approved by the Bureau of Land Management, while questions in the larger case continued.

Early this month, the groups appealed to the 9th Circuit, asking it to overturn an original decision by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason that allowed the winter work to continue. After the groups appealed, Gleason put a short-term halt on the work, pending a decision by the 9th Circuit.

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Gleason said the work could “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.

The 9th Circuit judges on Saturday agreed the plaintiffs will be harmed without an injunction halting the work.

“Our review of the record also convinces us that the appellants will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction, and that at least one of its NEPA claims is likely to succeed if timely,” the 9th Circuit judges said, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act. “We conclude that the balance of equities favors relief, that the balance of hardships tips sharply in appellants’ favor, and that an injunction pending appeal is in the public interest.”

The 9th Circuit halted the winter activity until the court can rule on an appeal in the case.

The court has expedited the appeal under a schedule that allows briefings to conclude in April, said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. Under that schedule, the court will likely not rule until at least sometime in May, she said.

Winter activity in remote camps often ends in April, and may not resume again until December or January.

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Once the 9th Circuit decides on the preliminary injunction, the issue will head back to district court for a decision on the broader questions, Monsell said.

Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, said in a statement on Sunday that the group is grateful for the court’s decision to stop “destructive on-the-ground construction and blasting work while our lawsuit makes its way through court.”

“Decision-makers and decision-making processes that impact the Arctic Slope must not just claim to include or consider us, but in fact prioritize our health and well-being,” Maupin said.

ConocoPhillips is expected to decide later this year if it will pay billions of dollars to develop Willow for oil production. First oil is not expected to flow until the mid-2020s.

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