Judge sides with ConocoPhillips Alaska in well data dispute

A judge has ruled that data from wells drilled by ConocoPhillips Alaska on federal lands on Alaska’s North Slope can remain confidential for now

ByBECKY BOHRER Associated Press
March 10, 2023, 7:00 PM

JUNEAU, Alaska -- A judge has ruled that data from wells drilled by ConocoPhillips Alaska on federal lands on Alaska's North Slope — including wells that are part of a major oil project the company is pursuing called Willow — can remain confidential for now.

This week's decision by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage comes as the Biden administration weighs whether to approve the project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The company says Willow could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day.

Willow has become the subject of fierce debate. While the project has widespread political support in Alaska, environmentalists have urged the Biden administration to reject the project, saying it is at odds with President Joe Biden’s climate pledges.

The mayor of the city of Nuiqsut, about 36 miles (58 kilometers) from the project, is also among those who has expressed concerns with it.

The project has garnered union support in Alaska and support from a number of Alaska Native leaders and groups with ties to the North Slope who have cast the project as an economic benefit to the rural region.

ConocoPhillips Alaska last year sued the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, seeking to block the commission from releasing data from five wells, three of which are in the Willow project. The company argued the release of the data would infringe on ConocoPhillips Alaska's rights under federal law and the federal leases. The commission oversees oil and gas drilling in the state.

According to court records, terms within the company's leases with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management specify that the federal land management agency will withhold well data from the public during the duration of the lease. Each lease is for an initial 10 years and subject to renewal or extension.

The company also received permits from the commission. State law calls for the commission to hold confidential well information filed with it for two years following the completion of a well. But attorneys for ConocoPhillips Alaska said in court documents that the law also allows for an extension. They say the state Department of Natural Resources commissioner denied an extension request.

Attorneys for the company said that if the data were publicly disclosed, the company's “competitive advantage resulting from its investment in the leases and drilling, for which it took on the risks of failure and paid tens of millions of dollars, will be lost.”

The Alaska Department of Law, which represented the commission, in court filings said the two-year period of confidentiality had passed and urged Gleason to dismiss the case.

Gleason said the case boiled down to whether federal law pre-empted state law regarding public release of the well data. She ruled that state disclosure laws that would allow for public disclosure of the data sooner than that which is permitted by federal law were pre-empted.

The Department of Law is reviewing the decision, department spokesperson Patty Sullivan said Friday.