On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason rejected requests from conservative groups to halt work on the Willow project in Alaska’s North Slope.
The Willow Project is currently the largest proposed oil project on U.S. federal land as ConocoPhillips looks to drill within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. ConocoPhillips predicts it could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, and that would account for 1.5% of total U.S. oil production.
The Biden administration greenlit the controversial project in March, albeit a scaled-back version of the plan, after the Interior Department only approved 3 of the 5 drilling sites proposed by ConocoPhillips. The company also agreed to forfeit 68,000 acres of existing leases to reduce its footprint on the land by one-third.
Upon approval of the project, 2 lawsuits were immediately filed by environmentalists, with a separate lawsuit filed by an Alaska Native group, Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, hoping to delay construction related to Willow. In separate lawsuits, they ultimately want to overturn the project, claiming that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to consider an adequate range of alternatives.
Trustees for Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and environmental groups said federal agencies failed to take a “hard look at the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts” of Willow and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to address impacts to polar bears, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Bridget Psarianos, lead staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, in a statement called Gleason’s decision “heartbreaking for all who want to protect local communities and prevent more devastating climate impacts in the Arctic and around the world. We will do everything we can to protect the region while the merits of our case get heard.”
Gleason said that support for the project by Alaska lawmakers and bipartisan congressional delegation was a key factor in her decision. She said support for Willow by an Alaska Native village corporation, an Alaska Native regional corporation and the North Slope Borough, also weighed on her decision, but also acknowledged that support for the project among Alaska Natives is not unanimous.
The court’s decision means that ConocoPhillips Alaska can now move ahead with cold-weather construction work, which includes mining gravel to use in extending a road toward the Willow project.
“With this decision from the federal district court, we are able to immediately begin construction activities. 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,” said ConocoPhillips spokesperson Rebecca Boys.
There are multiple exploration and development projects within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Willow project, including other discoveries being pursued by ConocoPhillips Alaska, the largest oil producer in the state.
The Voice of Arctic Iñupiat (VOICE), a nonprofit organization established in 2015 by Iñupiat leadership to speak with a unified voice on issues impacting the North Slope Iñupiat, their communities, their economy, and their culture, unanimously passed a resolution in support of advancing the Willow Project to support the economic well-being of the North Slope Iñupiat.
“We believe that the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska’s decision to deny an injunction to temporarily halt construction on Willow reaffirms the importance of the project and upholds the widespread support for the project across Alaska Native communities. The court’s decision is another step forward for Alaska, Alaska Native self-determination, and for America’s energy security,” said Nagruk Harcharek, President of VOICE.
“The Willow Project will provide overwhelming benefits to Alaska Native communities while coexisting with our subsistence lifestyle. Over its lifetime, Willow is expected to generate hundreds of direct jobs and thousands of construction jobs, along with contracting opportunities for Native-owned businesses.”
This is not the first time the Willow Project has faced such challenges. In 2021, Gleason blocked the project after it was first approved by the Trump administration in 2020, when she cited issues with the approval process and inadequate consideration of the full-scale climate consequences.
“North Slope communities have waited nearly a generation for the Willow Project to advance, offering long-term economic stability and affirming our right to self-determination. The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska’s decision moves North Slope communities one step closer toward this economically secure future.”