Alaska congressional delegation, Legislature file legal brief backing Willow oil project

Mar. 27—WASHINGTON — Alaska's congressional delegation and Legislature have filed a legal brief in federal court supporting ConocoPhillips' controversial Willow oil project on the North Slope.

The 14-page brief, filed Friday, comes in response to two lawsuits brought earlier this month by several environmental groups — including the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club and Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic — who say the Bureau of Land Management erred when it approved the Willow project. The environmental groups want U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason to stop the project, and make a preliminary decision halting initial construction work.

Gleason intends to issue a preliminary decision by next Monday, court documents show.

The bipartisan Alaska congressional delegation and state Legislature said in their amicus brief that a decision halting Willow this winter would cause "considerable harm to the public interest" and the state's economy. Such "friend of the court" briefs are filed by groups that aren't parties in a case but have a strong interest in its outcome.

[Biden calls approval of Willow oil field, with environmental concessions, 'a hell of a trade-off']

"Aiding the local economy and preventing job loss are valid public interest concerns," the brief said. "It is uncontested that an injunction would kill many Alaskan jobs and deprive Alaskans of direct and indirect economic benefits associated with imminent development activities."

The Biden administration recently approved the $8 billion project, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, under immense legal and political pressure. The decision authorized three drilling sites, drawing immediate outrage from environmental groups who say it endangers wildlife and the climate.

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said on a call with reporters on Monday that Gleason must weigh the public's interest in the case.

"We thought it was very important to have a brief from all these statewide elected officials in Alaska that lay out what we see as the public interest, which is to deny this preliminary injunction," he said.

Alaska House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, and Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, also spoke on the call. They said they could not recall a time the entire state Legislature signed onto an amicus brief with the congressional delegation. The Legislature last month unanimously passed a resolution supporting Willow.

"We want Americans to know that Alaska has and will continue to manage our resources in an environmentally sound way," Stevens said.

The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce and other industry and union groups such as the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the Alaska AFL-CIO also filed an amicus brief in support of Willow on Friday, arguing that it will benefit the state's economy.

Bridget Psarianos, senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, which filed one of the lawsuits against Willow, said the Alaska delegation and its partners are aware of the "tremendous" opposition to Willow. In particular, young voters concerned about climate change have spoken out against the project on social media platforms like TikTok.

"The blinders that state politicians and oil companies wear as they tout jobs and revenues, and rally resources around their (public relations) keeps them from being held accountable to the enduring harm this project will cause and their responsibility to be part of the solution in transitioning off oil and gas," Psarianos said Monday in a prepared statement.