ConocoPhillips gets OK to continue North Slope oil project

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - December 21, 2023

Construction is underway at the massive oil project even as the legal fight continues

The ConocoPhillips Alaska headquarters, seen here on April 8, 2020, looms over downtown Anchorage. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The ConocoPhillips Alaska headquarters, seen here on April 8, 2020, looms over downtown Anchorage. An appeals court order denying environmentalists’ request for an emergency injunction allows the company to proceed with its ongoing winter construction at its massive Willow project on the North Slope (Photo: Yereth Rosen / Alaska Beacon)

A federal appeals court rejected a motion by environmental and Alaska Native groups that were seeking to block construction of the Willow oil field project, allowing ConocoPhillips to continue with its planned winter work on the huge development on the North Slope.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a three-page order issued Monday, denied the motion for an emergency injunction that was filed two weeks ago by the groups that are seeking to overturn the Biden administration’s Willow approval.

The order was issued “without prejudice,” meaning that the larger legal case remains alive, with merits of the arguments for and against development to be evaluated later.

The Willow project, in line to become one of the most prolific oil fields on the North Slope, would tap into an estimated 600 million barrels of recoverable oil and produce up to 180,000 barrels a day, according to ConocoPhillips and federal regulators. That would be a significant boost to North Slope production that has dwindled since its 1988 peak of over 2 million barrels a day. Production in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, averaged 479,400 barrels per day, according to state officials.

Willow has been the subject of intense controversy. Alaska political and business leaders are championing it as critical to the state’s economy and the North Slope’s future as a long-term oil producer, while environmentalists are blasting it as a polluting “carbon bomb” that threatens to derail US efforts to combat climate change.

For ConocoPhillips, the court order affirmed ongoing plans.

“ConocoPhillips is pleased the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction pending appeal. ConocoPhillips is proceeding with Willow construction as we continue to review the court’s decision,” company spokesperson Rebecca Boys said by email on Tuesday.

The company has 800 employees and contractors already assigned to the project, and this winter’s work includes building an ice road, mining and placement of gravel and pipeline construction, Boys said. Activities that do not disturb the surface, such as preparations for the ice road, have already started, as have deliveries of construction materials to a staging area, she said. The surface-disturbing activities like gravel mining and placement are expected to start this month, she said.

Road construction is seen on March 12, 2017, at ConocoPhillips' Greater Mooses Tooth Unit in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. ConocoPhillips plans similar construction farther west at its huge Willow project. (Photo by Sarah LaMarr/U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
Road construction is seen on March 12, 2017, at ConocoPhillips’ Greater Mooses Tooth Unit in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. ConocoPhillips plans similar construction work farther west at its huge Willow project (Photo: Sarah LaMarr / US Bureau of Land Management)

Willow opponents, in a statement issued Tuesday, said they will press on with their challenges despite the latest setback.

“It’s disappointing that the court has allowed ConocoPhillips to continue doing construction on the Willow project when there’s ongoing litigation charging the Biden administration with unlawfully approving the project in the first place,” said Bridget Pasrianos, senior staff attorney with the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, which is representing the plaintiffs.

“This project was approved despite known harms to the community of Nuiqsut and despite the fact that it will produce huge amounts of greenhouse gases in a region already suffering existential climate impacts like the collapse of fish populations and community infrastructure,” she continued, citing the Inupiat village that is closest to the Willow site. “We will do everything we can to protect the western Arctic and stop Willow in the weeks and months to come.”

The continuing legal fight dates back to 2020, when the plaintiffs successfully challenged the Trump administration’s project approvals. After President Joe Biden was sworn into office, agencies in his administration reevaluated the plan and ultimately approved a project that would be somewhat smaller in scope, winnowing it down to three drill sites rather than the five that were in the Trump-approved plan.

Critics of the project continued to press their legal challenge, but their arguments were ultimately rejected last month by US District Court Judge Sharon Gleason. The plaintiffs appealed Gleason’s decision.

Backers of the project have amicus briefs supporting the Biden administration’s approvals. Briefs have been filed with the appeals court by the state of Alaska, the North Slope Borough and the Native-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corp., as well as by ConocoPhillips. The appeals court, in its latest order, also agreed to accept additional supportive briefs that the Alaska Congressional delegation and Alaska legislature plan to file.

The court set a series of deadlines later this month and in January for the parties to flesh out their arguments. On Tuesday, the court scheduled oral arguments on the matter to be held on Feb. 4 in San Francisco.

Willow, with production expected to start in 2029, would be the farthest-west producing oil field in Arctic Alaska.

Because it is located on federal land, within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the state would reap much less income from oil produced there than it does from most North Slope oil fields, which are located on state land. The extent to which state revenues would be negatively affected is being reviewed.

Since relocating to Alaska in 1978 to write for the Anchorage Times, Yereth Rosen has reported about the state for Reuters, the Alaska Dispatch News, Arctic Today and other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son’s hockey games.

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