Federal judge says construction can begin for Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope

Environmental groups had sought a preliminary injunction that could have stopped work during a longer legal battle

By: - April 3, 2023 4:25 pm
An exploration site at ConocoPhillips' Willow prospect is seen from the air in the 2019 winter season. (Photo by Judy Patrick/provided by ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc.)

An exploration site at ConocoPhillips' Willow prospect is seen from the air in the 2019 winter season. (Photo by Judy Patrick/provided by ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc.)

A federal court judge on Monday 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’s 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.

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 Tuesday. 

“With this decision from the federal district court, we are able to immediately begin construction activities,” said Rebecca Boys, director of media and advertising for ConocoPhillips Alaska, by email.

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 navigated by ice roads, and 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.

Boys said support for fighting the lawsuit was significant.

“We appreciate the support from the intervening parties and others who recognize that Willow will provide meaningful opportunities for Alaska Native communities and the State of Alaska, and domestic energy for America,” Boys said by email.


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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected].