Judge says Conoco can’t start gravel construction or mining at Willow oil project for up to 2 weeks

ConocoPhillips’ undeveloped Willow prospect. (Photo courtesy ConocoPhillips)

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.

Supporters say the project will lead to hundreds of jobs and help keep oil flowing down the trans-Alaska pipeline for decades. But conservation groups say it will cause too much harm — adversely impacting wildlife, the land and those who live in the nearby village of Nuiqsut.

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

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)

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

But conservation groups are suing, and want the project stopped.

Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, the Center for Biological Diversity and about a half-dozen other conservation groups sued the Trump administration in late 2020, arguing the 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 it 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.

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.”

She said while she remains confident in last week’s decision to allow the work at Willow, the Ninth Circuit may disagree with her. There’s a “strong likelihood of irreparable environmental consequences” once the blasting operations at the mine site start, she said.

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.

Asked how Gleason’s order impacted Conoco’s plans for Willow, a company spokesperson Rebecca Boys said in an emailed response that it does not prevent the ongoing construction of ice roads. She said she could not comment further on the active litigation.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from ConocoPhillips spokesperson Rebecca Boys.

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