Judge likely to rule next week on halting Willow construction on Alaska’s North Slope

Protesters asking President Biden to rule against the Willow project outside the White House in January. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

A federal judge could issue a decision as early as next week to temporarily halt construction of Willow, ConocoPhillips’ controversial oil drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve.

Two lawsuits filed by environmental groups and an Inupiat advocacy organization aim to overturn the Biden administration’s approval of Willow. The plaintiffs have asked for an injunction to halt construction until the case is decided.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason said she’d try to have a decision on the injunction by April 3.

The Interior Department’s decision to allow three drill pads and 200 oil wells was a blow to climate advocates. It drew applause from ConocoPhillips, labor unions and many constituencies on the North Slope, as well as Alaska’s Legislature and congressional delegation.

The Legislature and the trio who represent Alaska in Congress have taken the unusual step of jointly filing an amicus brief, to offer their perspective to the judge.

“We are working hard to get the judge to hear our voices — literally collectively, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Alaskans — to convince her that this project going forward, of course, abides by the law, but is strongly in the public interest,” U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan told reporters Monday.

The public interest is a big factor the judge must weigh in deciding whether to grant an injunction, Sullivan said.

“In many ways, discerning the public interest is what elected officials do all the time,” he said. “And so we thought it was very important to have a brief from all the statewide elected officials in Alaska, that lay out what we see as the public interest, which is to deny this preliminary injunction.”

Trustees for Alaska attorney Bridget Psarianos, who filed one of the lawsuits, said the amicus — or friend of the court — brief does nothing to negate her claim that the administration failed to follow environmental laws in issuing the Willow decision.

“This is unfortunately emphasizing Sen. Sullivan’s blinders — that the state government and oil companies and our own congressional delegation from Alaska have — to the impacts that Willow would have on local communities and global climate,” she said.

Nationally, opposition to the project built rapidly in February and early March. Anti-Willow videos on social media garnered millions of views, and young voters in particular say they feel President Biden violated a campaign promise.

Biden said last week that he was inclined not to approve Willow but was advised that ConocoPhillips would sue and likely win.

The company has held the Willow leases since the 1990s.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her atlruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Lizhere.

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