Appeals court says work at Alaska’s Willow oil project can proceed as larger case plays out

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A ConocoPhillips sign at the Colville-Delta 5 drill site, more commonly known as CD5, on Alaska’s North Slope in 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled on Monday against opponents of the giant Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope, refusing to immediately halt ongoing work as the court takes up the broader arguments in the case.

ConocoPhillips has said in previous court testimony that it plans $900 million in construction activity this winter as it lays the groundwork for the project, with 1,800 people expected to be employed.

Three circuit judges on the appeals court said in a three-page order that “the motions for injunctive relief pending appeal are denied without prejudice,” referring to efforts to immediately stop work at the project.

Their decision did not touch on the merits of the case, said Trustees for Alaska, which represents Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and environmental groups in one of the lawsuits brought against the project.

“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 Psarianos, lead staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska.“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. We will do everything we can to protect the western Arctic and stop Willow in the weeks and months to come.”

Rebecca Boys, a spokesperson with the oil company, said in an emailed statement on Tuesday that “ConocoPhillips is pleased the 9th 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,” she said.

Willow, located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska about 35 miles west of the village of Nuiqsut, could produce more than 600 million barrels of oil over three decades, an amount valued at close to $50 billion at today’s oil prices. Oil is expected to begin flowing in 2029.

The $8 billion project has drawn national opposition from many who are concerned it would create a “carbon bomb” that undermines President Joe Biden’s plans to address climate change while threatening wildlife such as polar bears.

Supporters of the project have touted its benefits to Alaska’s struggling economy and national security because it would reduce dependence on imported oil.

The decision was signed by circuit judges Johnnie B. Rawlinson and Jay S. Bybee, both of Las Vegas chambers, and Andrew D. Hurwitz of Phoenix chambers.

The court will expedite and consolidate the appeals brought by project opponents, Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and the Center for Biological Diversity, along with other groups. The court said it would take opening briefs in the case by Dec. 29.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, an appointee of President Barack Obama, ruled against the groups earlier this year after the Biden administration approved the project in March. The groups had argued the decision violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws, and failed to consider alternatives that would further reduce impacts to subsistence users, prevent drilling in sensitive ecosystems or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Major construction activity on the North Slope occurs in winter when heavy materials can be hauled across the frozen ground. It often extends through April and ends as snow melts and tundra begins to thaw.

Boys said ConocoPhillips said has about 800 staff and contractors currently working to make the project a reality.

“We have a thorough execution plan, and we are well-advanced in detailed engineering,” she said.

She said activities that don’t disturb the ground surface are underway at Willow, located on the western edge of Alaska’s other North Slope oil fields.

That work includes staking and pre-packing routes to create ice roads that are designed to protect the tundra.

“Ice road construction is planned to commence in early December, depending on weather,” Boys said.

“Surface disturbing activities such as gravel mining and placement and pipeline construction will begin as early as December 21, depending on weather,” Boys said in the email. “Construction materials for the 2024 winter season are now being delivered to the Willow staging area in Kuparuk.”

This story has been republished with permission from the original at the Anchorage Daily News.

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