Appeals court brings Willow project work to temporary halt

A federal appeals court decision has delayed winter road building, gravel mining and blasting near Nuiqsut on ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, announced on Saturday, Feb. 13, was applauded by Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic and five allied groups represented by Trustees for Alaska.

ConocoPhillips was not immediately available for comment.

The short seasonal construction window on Alaska’s North Slope came in the wake of challenge by Trustees to a decision by US District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage for the oil company’s winter work on in the NPR-A to continue.

ConocoPhillips had applied for permits and rights-of-way to drill in December and planned to begin construction on the Willow project on Feb. 2. The Bureau of Land Management okayed the project on Jan. 20, the day that Joe Biden was inaugurated as president of the United States. BLM officials said they signed off on the project before seeing an order from the incoming administration prohibiting the BLM from authorizing on-the-ground activities. Then Gleason ordered a one-week delay to the oil company’s plans for blasting and mining work, giving the Ninth Circuit time to decide an emergency motion brought by Trustees, who argued that irreparable harm would be done.

Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, voiced her approval of the appeals court decision. “Arctic Slope communities have suffered eat issues and the loss of traditional practices and food sources because of oil extraction,” she said. The main focus is food security, which is already endangered, she said.

Blasting activities around Nuiqsut have been a cause of concern for the community for some time, including blasting for an Arctic Slope Regional Corp. gravel pit to the east of Nuiqsut for the Alpine oil project. The temporary work halt applies only to work to the west on BLM land.

Nuiqsut relies 80% on subsistence for food, including moose, caribou, bowhead whales, seals and walrus. Barging of oilfield supplies will disturb the whales, Maupin said. The power of the blasts several miles from the village has also caused cracks in some homes too, she said.

Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney for Trustees, said she was pleasantly surprised by the appeals court decision. “It would be unconscionable to allow construction to proceed when the agencies’ approval of Willow is founded on an illegal and deficient environmental analysis that fails to lay out and address impacts to wetlands, water, land, animals and people,” she said.

Also represented in the case by Trustees were Alaska were Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.