ConocoPhillips Alaska to pause some work at Willow oil field amid lawsuits from conservation groups
Mar. 18—Conservation groups have asked a federal judge for a preliminary decision to stop construction work this winter at the Willow oil field in Alaska's Arctic, days after the Biden administration approved the project.
Developer ConocoPhillips has begun building the ice road for the project but agreed to delay activity associated with gravel mining and road-building while the court considers the request, according to paperwork filed in the case. That could put dozens of jobs on hold for now.
The Biden administration early this week approved the controversial, $8 billion project that would produce oil for three decades. A number of Alaska groups and lawmakers support the project to boost Alaska's struggling economy, but conservation groups have called Willow a "carbon bomb" that would accelerate global warming.
Several conservation groups this week filed two lawsuits against the Biden administration to stop the project, arguing that its impacts on the environment have not been fully considered, nor have project alternatives that could reduce its potential harm.
The cases have been assigned to Judge Sharon Gleason in U.S. District Court in Anchorage. In one case, the groups suing include Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Alaska Wilderness League and others. The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and other national groups have filed suit in a similar case.
In their requests for a first-step decision to stop road construction and gravel mining, the groups say the activity would cause irreparable harm, such as mine blasting and traffic that will displace caribou and affects Alaska Native hunters who rely on them.
The U.S. Department of Justice, representing the Interior Department and other agencies, filed paperwork asking Gleason for a quick ruling on the preliminary decision, between March 28 and April 3.
[ADN Politics podcast: The battle over the Willow project]
The filings say ConocoPhillips began building an ice road just after the project was approved. The ice road would take about a week to build and lead to the mine where gravel will be extracted to build a 3-mile gravel road from an existing field.
ConocoPhillips has agreed to halt any construction that would impact the surface of the ground until April 4, to allow the court to review the request for a preliminary injunction, the Justice Department filing says.
The full Willow project is expected to take six years to build, creating about 2,000 construction jobs.
ConocoPhillips has about 40 personnel on hand to support ice road construction and camps, but when gravel-related work begins, that number will peak at 125, ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Rebecca Boys said in a statement.
"We will stay at 40 until the preliminary injunction is resolved," Boys said.
This winter's short construction season is expected to end April 25, the Justice Department says. Major North Slope construction in the oil patch occurs in winter, until the ice and snow that protects the tundra begin melting.
"Any further delay would compromise or prevent the viability of the construction season," the Justice Department filing says. "ConocoPhillips' concession on this schedule is not an admission that any of the planned activities causes irreparable harm."
ConocoPhillips and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., representing Alaska Natives from the North Slope where the project is located, have intervened in the court dispute on the side of the federal government. The North Slope Borough, encompassing eight villages, is also seeking to intervene on the government's side.
The Alaska Legislature on Friday agreed to join a friends of the court filing from the Alaska congressional delegation expressing support for the Willow project.
"By joining this amicus brief, we send a clear message that we will not be deterred by frivolous lawsuits and will continue to fight for the critical projects that will benefit Alaskans for decades to come," said House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, in a prepared statement Friday.
Reporter Sean Maguire contributed to this story from Juneau.