Just days before ConocoPhillips’ Alaska division was slated to begin construction of the long-planned Willow project, a federal judge ordered a delay in response to a lawsuit by environmental groups that alleges former President Trump’s administration overlooked wildlife and climate change impacts.
In a decision issued last week, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason temporarily prevented ConocoPhillips from opening a gravel mine or building a gravel road at the Willow site, which is located within the Bear Tooth Unit of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
Gleason had early last week denied conservation groups’ requests to block ConocoPhillips from starting construction until after legal challenges were completed. The judge said then that the groups had not shown that polar bears in the region were likely to endure “irreparable injury” if the construction work was allowed while she considered the lawsuits. That element of the legal challenge, the judge said, was critical for the court to consider halting construction.
The conservation groups appealed Gleason’s decision, however, and the judge agreed to pause the gravel work until at least Feb. 20, providing the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals time to weigh in. According to Gleason’s order, ConocoPhillips had intended to start blasting gravel on Feb. 12 and begin road construction in March.
Gleason said that, while she “remains confident” in her ruling early last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “may disagree” and should be allowed to review the case before blasting work commences and the environment at the project site is permanently altered.
“Accordingly, the court will exercise its discretion by issuing a brief and limited injunction,” Gleason wrote.
ConocoPhillips said it does not discuss ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit to stop Willow construction was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The plaintiffs said they will continue to press for a more sweeping injunction, hoping to either win in court or create enough time for President Biden’s administration to review the project and potentially halt it. Biden has ordered a review of Trump-era energy policies and decisions, including approval of the Willow project.
“If President Biden and his administration are serious about combating the climate crisis and prioritizing a transition to renewable energy then it’s time for all the Arctic drilling games to stop,” said Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace.
Residents near the Willow site have expressed concerns about air quality and curbed hunting opportunities. Conservation groups opposed the proposal, calling it a threat to an important wetland complex that supports migratory birds, polar bears and calving for a caribou herd.
The Willow project could produce up to 160,000 b/d, with a processing capacity of 200,000 b/d over its anticipated 30-year life, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management. The project could produce up to 590 million bbl in total. It would also help offset declines in production from existing North Slope oil fields, the agency, under Trump, said in approving the project.
The approval allowed for construction of three drill sites and associated processing and support facilities, including gravel roads and pipelines to provide access to federal leases in the 23 million-acre reserve.
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