Federal appeals court rejects bid by conservation groups to immediately stop work at Willow oil project

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that ConocoPhillips can continue its early stage construction work this winter season at the controversial Willow oil project in Alaska, as the broader case brought by conservation groups against the project continues.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in a single sentence that it was denying the emergency motions seeking to stop the work, which is expected to wrap up by the end of the month. Several conservation groups have filed two lawsuits against the Interior Department to overturn the approval for the project.

The decision is another step forward for ConocoPhillips and the $8 billion project. The company is pursuing plans to produce up to 600 million barrels of oil from the giant field over three decades, starting as early as 2029.

The administration of President Joe Biden approved the project last month, over arguments from conservation groups that the project is a “carbon bomb” that will undermine the president’s plans to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Willow is located on Alaska’s North Slope not far from the Arctic Ocean, about 35 miles west of the village of Nuiqsut, in the Indiana-sized National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

ConocoPhillips has said it will extract gravel from a mine this month in order to build a 3-mile road toward the Willow project area, among other relatively small, early-stage projects. ConocoPhillips has said it expected to employ about 125 people for the work.

Conservation groups that sued issued a statement Wednesday blasting the decision.


“This ruling comes as more hard news and demonstrates again how the oil and gas industry exerts so much power over those whose health and food are most impacted and who will most experience the climate harm and disaster this project will fuel,” said Siqiñiq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, one of the groups involved in the lawsuits.

The groups will continue to fight the project, Maupin said.

ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Rebecca Boys said the company was pleased with the appeals court’s decision.

“This allows the Willow project to continue moving forward during this already shortened work season,” Boys said.

The Interior Department does not comment on pending litigation, a spokeswoman said.

Supporters of the project have said that the project will boost the state’s economy and support energy independence for the nation. Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan called the ruling “great news” for Alaska, and the country. “When Alaskans come together and speak with one voice, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish,” he said.

The appeals court decision coincides with a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason earlier this month denying the emergency request. Gleason had ruled that this year’s planned work would not “irreparably harm” members of the conservation groups. Conservation groups appealed that ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the broader case, the groups argue that the federal government violated multiple laws when it approved the project and did not fully account for the project’s environmental impacts.

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