Judge says ConocoPhillips Alaska can keep Willow oil well data secret for now

A federal judge in Alaska on Wednesday decided in favor of ConocoPhillips in a dispute with state regulators, ruling that the oil company can keep well data from its huge Willow discovery confidential for now.

The Willow oil field, the largest in Alaska in more than 20 years, is currently the subject of intense national debate between conservation groups and development proponents. President Joe Biden’s administration is expected to announce any day whether the field can be developed.

Last year, ConocoPhillips Alaska sued to stop the release of data from five exploration wells drilled in 2018 in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where the oil company made multiple discoveries including Willow.

With minimal exceptions, state law requires that data associated with oil and gas wells be made public after two years — a period that has already passed for the wells in question. The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that permitted the ConocoPhillips’ wells in the reserve, had said it would publicly release the data unless it was stopped from doing so by a court decision.

ConocoPhillips had argued that because the wells were drilled on federal land, they are subject to federal laws around confidentiality, not state laws. Federal law allows the well information to be kept confidential for the life of the leases that ConocoPhillips acquired from the federal government — an initial period of 10 years, and longer as leases are renewed.

In the 34-page decision, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason wrote that federal disclosure requirements for the wells preempt Alaska law.

[Days before an expected decision on Willow, opposition to the Alaska oil project surges on TikTok]


Gleason wrote that when Congress opened up the reserve to private oil and gas leasing in 1980, it wanted a rapid solution to the energy crisis and oil-price spike of that era.

As one incentive for oil companies to explore for oil, the federal government wanted well data to remain confidential until a company abandons its leases, Gleason said.

“Less exploration of the NPR-A is the opposite of Congress’s objective in (allowing competitive leasing in the reserve), which was to promote the expeditious private exploration of this federal land,” Gleason wrote. “Congress recognized the need to protect the confidentiality of well data in order to promote that goal. It would make no sense for Congress to prohibit the federal government from publicly disclosing well data for the duration of an NPR-A lease but permit a state to disclose such information prior to the end of the lease.”

Allowing the state of Alaska to disclose ConocoPhillips’ well data “after just two years would clearly impede Congress’s intent to expeditiously advance private oil and gas development on the NPR-A,” Gleason wrote.

Gleason pointed out that ConocoPhillips provided the well data to the state regulatory commission as required, though federal law prevents its public release for now.

She said that arrangement creates a balance of data-sharing that Congress intended, with private exploration incentivized while the state receives important information for conservation and oversight purposes.

ConocoPhillips had argued that 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 argued.

The oil and gas commission had argued that preemption of state law does not apply in this case, which involves a matter of health and safety and the state’s historic oversight of oil and gas development. It also argued that state disclosure laws would not hurt Congress’ goal to encourage oil and gas exploration in the petroleum reserve.

The oil and gas commission referred questions about the decision, including whether it will appeal, to the Alaska Department of Law. The decision is under review, said Patty Sullivan, a spokeswoman with the department.

ConocoPhillips Alaska is “pleased with the court’s decision that our proprietary well data obtained on federal lands is entitled to confidential treatment,” Rebecca Boys, a ConocoPhillips spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The oil and gas commission is also investigating a large ConocoPhillips gas leak on the North Slope last year. It plans to hold a public hearing on the leak on March 23.

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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