Vol. 26, No.8 Week of February 21, 2021
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Willow work paused

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9th Circuit extends injunction against field work until appeal settled

Alan Bailey

for Petroleum News

In a Feb. 13 order the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit extended an injunction, banning ConocoPhillips from conducting fieldwork for its Willow oilfield development. The injunction will now continue until a 9th Circuit appeal over an injunction request rejection in District Court has been resolved. The Willow project involves bringing into production a major new oil field in the northeastern National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

ConocoPhillips had been planning to start gravel mining and gravel road construction in February. The winter work plans also involved ice road construction.

“The scope of work on Willow this winter included building an ice road to the gravel mine site, opening the mine, and building 2.8 miles of gravel road associated with the project,” ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Rebecca Boys told Petroleum News. “The court’s ruling means that the gravel work we previously announced for this winter season will not go forward. About 120 jobs will be affected.”

Initial injunction request rejected

Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic and several environmental organizations launched challenges against the Bureau of Land Management approval of the Willow project in federal District Court in Alaska in November. In December the organizations requested an injunction, pending resolution of the court cases. On Feb. 1 District Court Judge Sharon Gleason rejected the injunction request. Gleason said that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that winter construction activities planned by ConocoPhillips are likely to cause irreparable damage to polar bears - potential impacts on polar bears formed a key component of the injunction request.

Gleason also rejected an argument that, when issuing the final environmental impact statement for the project, BLM had infringed the National Environmental Policy Act by inadequately considering alternative projects and global greenhouse gas emissions associated with the development. Essentially, the judge upheld a BLM argument that the plaintiffs had failed to meet a legal requirement that any request for a judicial review of the EIS must be filed within 60 days of publication of the EIS.

Elevated to 9th Circuit

Following Gleason’s Feb. 1 order the appellees appealed their injunction request to the 9th Circuit Court. Subsequently, recognizing the likelihood of irreparable impacts to the environment once ConocoPhillips’ gravel work starts, on Feb. 6 Gleason issued a temporary injunction, banning ConocoPhillips from conducting gravel mining and road construction until Feb. 20, or until the 9th Circuit rules on the original injunction, whichever comes first.

In its subsequent Feb. 13 order the 9th Circuit court extended Gleason’s Feb. 6 injunction until the injunction appeal case has been resolved. The court says that it is expediting the appeal.

The 9th Circuit is particularly focusing on what it views as legal ambiguity over the 60-day time limit for a request for judicial review of an EIS, under the terms of NEPA.

“Our review of the record also convinces us that the appellants will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction, and that at least one of its NEPA claims is likely to succeed if timely,” the court order said.

Congressional delegation expresses concern

The Alaska congressional delegation has expressed its concern about the 9th Circuit decision.

“This decision completely upends the legal development of a project that was already providing good-paying jobs to hard-working Alaskans, and would generate hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, and billions in revenue for our state,” said U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. “The Willow project will significantly help Alaska Native communities in the North Slope Borough with job opportunities and funding for schools, health clinics, and social services.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski characterized the decision as “a kick in the gut to Alaska.”

“This decision could lead to a possible delay in the production of hundreds of billions of barrels of oil and desperately needed revenue for the State of Alaska and the federal government,” Murkowski said. “Further, the decision is unnecessary because the Bureau of Land Management, under the Obama administration’s IAP, completed a thorough and comprehensive review to ensure it would not move forward at any cost to Alaska’s environment.”

“By halting the Willow project, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a devastating blow to Alaska’s energy workers, their families, and all who would benefit from responsible resource development in the NPR-A,” said U.S. Rep. Don Young. “The Willow project represents immense potential for our state, and this is not the time to roll back progress on initiatives that could bring back jobs and help our economy recover from the ongoing pandemic.”

A range of opinions

Although the oil industry brings huge economic benefits to the communities of the North Slope, there are also concerns about potential impacts on the traditional way of life, in particular subsistence hunting - hence the participation of some people from the communities in the lawsuits. On the other hand, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the Native regional corporation for the North Slope, has joined the court cases in support of the Willow development. Environmental organizations are vehemently opposed to oil development in Arctic Alaska.

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