Energy

ConocoPhillips sues Alaska agency to keep well data from giant North Slope oil discovery secret

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ConocoPhillips is suing the state of Alaska to stop it from publicly releasing well data associated with its huge Willow oil discovery, located on the western edge of the state’s North Slope oil fields.

State law requires that data associated with wells be made public after two years, with minimal exceptions.

But ConocoPhillips is arguing that the wells were drilled in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and are therefore subject to federal laws around confidentiality, not state laws, said the 17-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that permitted the wells in the reserve, will publicly release the data unless it is stopped from doing so by a court decision, the complaint says.

In its lawsuit, the oil company says it has spent tens of millions of dollars to acquire its leases and could lose its competitive advantage if the well data is released. The data contains valuable trade secrets and other proprietary information, the company argues.

The five wells named in the complaint were drilled in 2018.

The release of the well data has been in dispute after ConocoPhillips asked the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to extend the state’s confidentiality period. The agency denied the request.

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Federal law would allow the well information to be kept confidential for a longer period, the life of the leases that ConocoPhillips acquired from the federal government, the company argues. The federal government issues 10-year oil and gas leases, which companies can renew.

Willow could produce 160,000 barrels of oil daily and about 600 million barrels over three decades. ConocoPhillips has not made a final decision to build the project, potentially a $6 billion endeavor. The project is undergoing additional environmental review under the Biden administration after a federal judge rejected permits approved by the former Trump administration.

The complaint says when Congress in 1980 authorized private leasing in the 23-million acre reserve, it wanted to keep leaseholders’ information confidential.

[Biden administration cites lackluster industry interest in canceling Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sale]

Without a judge’s order stopping it, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission “will continue its unlawful attempt to publicly disclose (the well data) by seeking to enforce state laws and regulations in a manner that is expressly preempted by and conflicts with federal law, and impermissibly interferes with Congress’s important objectives,” the lawsuit says.

Rebecca Boys, a spokeswoman with ConocoPhillips, said the question of confidentiality involving federal leases is a matter of federal law for federal courts to decide.

Dan Seamount, a member of the commission, said the agency would not comment while the matter is in litigation.

ConocoPhillips’ bid to keep the information confidential echoes the successful efforts by different companies decades earlier to protect the confidentiality of data associated with the only well drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another large tract of federal land on Alaska’s North Slope.

The results of that so-called KIC-1 well, drilled in the mid-1980s, were provided to the Alaska oil and gas commission. But BP Alaska, Chevron and Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Alaska Native corporation, fought in state court to keep the information from being publicly released.

In 1992, the companies reached a settlement with the state that allowed limited disclosure to key officials within the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, primarily experts in the oil and gas division. The findings of that well have been a closely guarded secret ever since, although a New York Times investigation in 2019 suggested the results weren’t promising.

The state oil and gas commission is also investigating a recent ConocoPhillips gas leak on the North Slope.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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