Judge says Conoco can’t build gravel roads, mine at Willow oil project for up to 2 weeks

An aerial view of one of the exploration pads and wells that ConocoPhillips drilled during the 2018 exploration season at its Willow prospect.
An aerial view of one of the exploration pads and wells that ConocoPhillips drilled during the 2018 exploration season at its Willow prospect. (Judy Patrick Photography / ConocoPhillips Alaska)

A federal judge said Saturday that ConocoPhillips can’t start opening a gravel mine or building gravel roads at its Willow oil project for up to two weeks.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason’s order comes after conservation groups appealed her decision last week to allow the work at Willow.

Willow is the name of Conoco’s massive oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, on the western North Slope. 

A map shows where ConocoPhillip's Willow oil project would be located -- on the eastern edge of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Conoco’s Willow oil and gas prospect is located in the northeastern corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Image credit Bureau of Land Management)

Supporters say the project will lead to hundreds of jobs and help keep oil flowing down the trans-Alaska pipeline for decades. While those opposed, including conservation groups, say it will cause too much harm to wildlife, the environment and Alaskans who live in the nearby village of Nuiqsut. 

Conoco has said it could start producing oil at Willow in about five years. 

This winter, it wants to build ice and gravel roads in the area, plus a mine site about seven miles from Nuiqsut.

The village of Nuiqsut in June 2018. Nuiqsut is near a growing number of oil developments in the western Arctic. (Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

But conservation groups want the project stopped.

Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Center for Biological Diversity and about a half-dozen others sued the Trump administration in late 2020, arguing the federal government violated environmental laws when it OK’d the Willow project

The groups want work halted on the project until the lawsuits are resolved.

They’ve recently taken their requests to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gleason ruled Saturday that Conoco can continue construction on its seasonal ice roads. But, she said, the company must not blast the gravel mine or build gravel roads until Feb. 20 or until the Ninth Circuit rules on the groups’ requests — whichever happens first. 

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Conoco had planned to break ground at the mine site on Feb. 12, according to Gleason’s 11-page order.

She described the mandatory pause as a “brief and limited injunction.”

Gleason said while she remains confident in her earlier decision to allow the work at Willow, the Ninth Circuit may disagree. And, she said, there’s a “strong likelihood of irreparable environmental consequences” once blasting at the mine starts.

The conservation groups behind the lawsuits celebrated Gleason’s decision. 

“We must protect the Arctic, not exploit it,” said a statement Sunday from Kristen Monsell, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

In an email, Rebecca Boys, a Conoco spokeswoman, underscored that Gleason’s order does not prevent the ongoing construction of ice roads. Boys said she could not comment further on the active litigation.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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