By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Judge denies opponents' request to halt major North Slope oil project


April 12, 2023

A federal court judge on April 3 ruled against environmental groups seeking to block preliminary construction of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope.

The decision allows ConocoPhillips, the project developer, to begin digging a gravel mine and building a gravel road to access the area projected to be the largest new North Slope oil development in decades. A boat ramp to support subsistence hunting and fishing is also planned.

Legal challenges will continue, multiple environmental groups said.

At peak production in the early 2030s, Willow is predicted to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day — more than 30% of the North Slope’s current volume. A recent estimate from legislative fiscal analysts put the project’s overall development cost at $10 billion.

The Alaska Legislature voted unanimously to support ConocoPhillips’ position in the lawsuit, and the oil firm also received support from industry groups, the AFL-CIO and Alaska’s congressional delegation.

ConocoPhillips said in court filings that it has already constructed ice roads and could begin gravel work as soon as the day after the judge’s ruling.

Environmental groups, which have been seeking to stop the development, said they were unhappy with the ruling from Alaska District Court Judge Sharon Gleason.

“This is a profoundly disappointing decision,” said Karlin Itchoak, The Wilderness Society’s senior regional director for Alaska. “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. We will continue to fight with all means at our disposal.”

Most heavy construction on the North Slope takes place in winter, when the tundra can be traveling on ice roads. ConocoPhillips said it expects to work only from April 4 to about April 25, depending on weather.

In a 44-page order, Gleason wrote that environmental groups failed to demonstrate that those three weeks of work would cause irreparable harm to the environment.

She wrote that the court has received “numerous declarations” discussing the environmental harm that could be caused if oil is produced from Willow, “but regardless of the validity of these concerns, they are not relevant to the court’s consideration of the current motions because the planned winter 2023 construction activities do not include the extraction of any oil and gas.”

She said blasting at the proposed gravel quarry was unlikely to harm residents of Nuiqsut, the closest town to the site, and that subsistence hunters were unlikely to be harmed by construction this winter.

When considering whether construction is in the public interest, Gleason said she gave “considerable weight” to the Alaska Legislature’s unanimous vote in support of the project.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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