A federal judge on Monday declined to stop ConocoPhillips from beginning construction work this season at the Willow oil field in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The conservation groups seeking a preliminary injunction did not show that this year’s work at the field in northern Alaska will “irreparably harm” their members, according to the 44-page order from U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason.
The decision is expected to allow ConocoPhillips to immediately begin work extracting gravel from a mine and building a 3-mile road toward the Willow project area.
“The court has weighed the environmental harm posed by the proposed winter 2023 construction activities against the economic damages, benefits to most subsistence users, and the state and federal legislative pronouncements of the public interest that would be impacted by a preliminary injunction prohibiting these construction activities at this time, and concludes that the balance of the equities and the public interest tip sharply against preliminary injunctive relief,” Gleason said in her decision.
Gleason’s order is only one step forward in the company’s plans for the project, which isn’t expected to begin producing oil for six years. The construction season is expected to end in three weeks, as the frozen ground that protects tundra begins to thaw.
The decision is part of the larger issues Gleason is considering in the case. Conservation groups say the federal government violated multiple laws when they approved the project last month and did not fully account for the project’s environmental impacts.
Rebecca Boys, a spokesperson with ConocoPhillips, said the decision will allow the company to immediately start construction work.
“We appreciate the support from the intervening parties and others who recognize that Willow will provide meaningful opportunities for Alaska Native communities and the State of Alaska, and domestic energy for America,” she said.
Conservation groups on Monday, including Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club, swiftly filed a notice of appeal following the decision.
“This is a profoundly disappointing decision,” said Karlin Itchoak, senior regional director for The Wilderness Society in Alaska, in a statement. “Willow poses a serious threat to air quality and subsistence resources for Indigenous communities in the region —as well as the world’s climate — and ConocoPhillips should not be allowed to begin work on a destructive project that was poorly evaluated by the Bureau of Land Management.”
Bridget Psarianos, lead staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, which brought one of two lawsuits for six conservation groups in the case, said the decision is “heartbreaking” for those who want to prevent devastating climate impacts.
“This ruling means ConocoPhillips can continue an aggressive construction schedule in the last weeks of spring, despite two lawsuits and an array of legal problems around the project’s approval,” said Psarianos. “The District Court found in our prior 2020 lawsuit that winter road construction and gravel mining would do immediate and permanent harm to land and the community of Nuiqsut. It’s no different this time.”
The $8 billion project is expected to produce 600 million barrels of oil over its lifetime — worth about $50 billion at today’s oil prices — helping boost Alaska’s struggling economy. If production begins as expected in 2029, it is expected to sharply increase the amount of oil flowing through the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Conservation groups have opposed the project, saying it will undermine President Joe Biden’s climate goals as the oil is burned, and threaten a fragile environment that’s home to polar bears, caribou and other animals.
ConocoPhillips has said it expected to employ about 125 people for the rock extraction and road-building work this winter.
Nagruk Harcharek, president of Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, called the project “another step forward for Alaska, Alaska Native self-determination, and for America’s energy security.”
The project will contribute more than $3 billion in tax and royalty revenue that benefits North Slope communities, he said in a statement.
The project is located about 35 miles west of the village of Nuiqsut. Nuiqsut’s mayor had protested the project.
Gleason, in the decision, said affidavits of Nuiqsut residents and others opposed to the project did not adequately show they would be harmed by the project. She said the gravel mine is seven miles west of Nuiqsut and the blasting there to access gravel will be limited, reducing the impact on caribou and village residents, she said.
On the other hand, she said other affidavits from Nuiqsut residents in the case said the road will make subsistence caribou hunting more accessible, while a subsistence boat ramp that ConocoPhillips will build will improve access to fishing.
“Overall, the record does not demonstrate that the construction of the gravel road extension and boat launch would be against the interest of most subsistence uses,” Gleason writes.
Gleason also says there would be economic harm in the village if work is halted, and more broadly across the state. She says affidavits of employers cited dozen jobs in the village would be impacted, including construction and hospitality workers, if this year’s work is halted.
Andy Mack, chief executive at Kuukpik, the Alaska Native corporation for the village of Nuiqsut near Willow, said the corporation will be involved some of the work this winter. It will be able to employ several shareholders, including mechanics and heavy equipment drivers.
He said Gleason’s ruling was balanced, and the right one in the end. The project is economically important but it will require mitigation every step of the way to reduce environmental impacts, including at Teshekpuk Lake, a prized area for waterfowl and caribou calving, he said.
“The decision acknowledged there are people with grave concerns in support of the injunction, but it also recognizes those voices in the community and the many people who we think are in the majority who will benefit from the project,” he said.
Gleason has allowed Kuukpik and other entities to intervene in the case on the side of the federal government. The intervening defendants are the state of Alaska, ConocoPhillips the North Slope Borough, representing eight villages in the region, and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., representing Alaska Native shareholders from the region.
Conservation groups that have brought the lawsuits include Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, Alaska Wilderness League, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Environment America, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic.
Gleason made a similar decision in early 2021 to allow work to begin at Willow, after several conservation groups had made similar arguments to stop a larger version of Willow that had been approved by the Trump administration. The groups challenged that decision, and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the winter work would in fact cause harm members of the groups, halting initial construction work then.
Later in 2021, Gleason ultimately rejected the federal approval of the project, finding that it did not properly consider project alternatives or fully weigh environmental impacts such as global greenhouse gas emissions as the oil is consumed.
That led to a new environmental review by the Biden administration, and its decision last month to approve a scaled-down version of Willow. That decision allows three drill sites with 200 wells, down from an earlier version that would have allowed up to five drill sites and 250 wells.
Alaska Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, who had filed a friends of the court brief in support of Willow along with the state Legislature, praised Gleason’s decision but also said they expected an appeal and will continue to argue in favor of the project.
Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement that the decision “validates Alaska’s high standards for the environment when it comes to oil production.”