President Joe Biden’s allies in the climate movement are bracing for their biggest setback from his administration as he moves closer to approving an Alaskan oil project that would pump as much carbon into the atmosphere as 60 coal-burning power plants.
The administration is expected to approve ConocoPhillips’ plans to build its proposed Willow project on federal land in the Arctic tundra, according to three people at environmental groups who have talked to the White House and Interior Department in recent days about it. But there is no indication yet that Biden himself has signed off on it, and the administration appears to be still trying to decide how big the project would be, these people said.
The White House insisted Friday and Saturday that the administration has made “no final decisions” about the project. But administration officials have touted the importance of oil production in recent months, and people outside the administration said they had been expecting the approval to be announced this past Friday.
Biden pledged to halt new oil and gas development on federal land during his 2020 campaign, and he and Democrats in Congress passed landmark climate legislation last summer aimed at weaning huge swaths of the economy off of fossil fuels. But the surge in oil prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced the administration into an awkward embrace of the oil industry, as Biden countered Republican accusations that his policies were to blame for the skyrocketing price at the gas pump that was stoking inflation.
Approving Willow would be just the latest shift by Biden toward the political center as he moves toward a potential reelection bid. He similarly dismayed liberals last week by saying he would not veto a GOP-led repeal of changes to D.C.’s criminal code.
The White House defended Biden’s environmental record Saturday in comments to POLITICO, saying Biden’s policies have made the U.S. “a magnet for clean energy manufacturing and jobs” with policies that help the U.S. come closer to meeting climate goals. A White House official said that using oil and gas is still consistent with Biden’s near- and long-term emissions targets, which the official said the U.S. is on track to meet.
“This approach has not changed — nor will it. Our climate goals are cutting emissions in half by 2030 and reaching net-zero by 2050 — not 2023,” the official said. “That has always meant that oil will continue to be a part of the energy mix in the short-term while we shore up domestic clean energy production for the long-term.”
Environmental groups acknowledged Saturday that they were largely in the dark about the White House’s plans, but said they believed that the current discussions inside the administration were largely over whether to limit the number of drilling sites at the Willow project to two rather than three. Conoco had proposed building five well pads.
“It sounds like different groups in the White House are still discussing” the potential size of the project, said one environmental advocate who had been in contact with the administration late Friday.
“They told us they had nothing to offer” on the state of project deliberations, added the person, who was granted anonymity to describe internal White House deliberations.
But if the reports of the approval are true, Biden’s shift to the center on oil would threaten to demoralize the climate activists he needs to support him in 2024, said Jamal Raad, co-founder and senior adviser of the group Evergreen Action.
“It will be harder for us and climate activists to rally around this president come next year,” Raad said, explaining the action would detract from his many accomplishments, such as the $370 billion in climate and clean energy incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, while putting the onus on Biden to issue tougher environmental rules on cars and power plants.
Conoco declined to comment until it hears a decision directly from the administration.
Conoco Chief Executive Ryan Lance last week urged the administration to approve Willow, saying the project was in line with the Biden administration’s recent exhortations to the industry to increase oil production to help batten down prices.
“This is exactly what this administration has been asking our industry to do over the last couple of years,” Lance told an energy conference in Houston.
Regardless of the size, any plan would call for drilling oil and building miles of pipelines and roads, a gravel pit, an air strip and other infrastructure in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a 36,875-square-mile patch of federal land in the relatively undeveloped Arctic wilderness. It would produce as much as 600,000 barrels of oil over its three-decade lifetime.
The project would also add nearly 280 million tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere over that period, according to the Interior Department’s environmental analysis. That would be the equivalent of adding two new coal-fired power plants to the U.S. electricity system every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions calculator.
The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, originally set aside by the Harding administration for potential oil drilling in 1923, is outside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another swath of northern Alaska that Biden has declared off-limits for oil development.
Environmentalists said they were still holding onto hope based on the administration’s denial that it made a final decision to OK the project, despite multiple news reports saying that an announcement of the approval would be made in the coming days. (Bloomberg News first reported Friday night that the administration had decided to greenlight it.)
“Great! Then there is still time to turn this all around!!!” Natural Resources Defense Council spokesperson Anne Hawke posted on Twitter after White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre denied on Friday that a final decision had been made.
Hawke also reached out to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg for help persuading Biden, tweeting at the young advocate: “In just days, the US will approve a massive oil project in Alaska. Can you help us tell US @POTUS to #StopWillowProject?”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a longtime climate advocate, expressed dismay at the news.
“We cannot allow the Willow Project to move forward,” he tweeted late Friday. “We must build a clean energy future — not return to a dark, fossil-fueled past.”
An approval, if it comes, would infuriate environmental groups and continue a year-long strengthening of the administration’s relationship with the oil industry. But it would also come as market analysts are forecasting that oil prices will remain volatile for the next several years, which would make killing the project politically tricky.
Biden himself has softened his rhetoric on transitioning the country away from fossil fuels, and he has repeatedly pressed the oil and gas industry to increase production in the short term to keep prices lower.
“We are still going to need oil and gas for a while.” he said during his State of the Union speech last month.
The Willow development is the rare large-scale oil project to be announced in recent years in the United States, where the industry has instead shifted its focus to drilling smaller, cheaper and faster projects using fracking to tap into shale fields in the Southwest. If approved, construction could start soon, and additional construction in Alaska’s North Slope for Willow will occur throughout the summer and fall, the company has said.
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Alaskan native tribes have expressed split opinions on the project, with some warning it would degrade their environment and others welcoming its potential economic gains.
“The Willow Project is a new opportunity to ensure a viable future for our communities, creating generational economic stability for our people and advancing our self-determination,” said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the nonprofit Voice of Arctic Iñupiat, in a statement Saturday. “North Slope Iñupiat communities have waited nearly a generation for Willow to advance.”
Yet that urgency to develop the project, and the signals from the White House, were disheartening to environmental groups.
“To us, it all sucks because it flies in the face of meeting our climate goals. So we’re going to keep fighting until there is a final record of decision,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters.
Some of Biden’s green allies suggested the move could have repercussions for Democrats in 2024. Along with the long-debated Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, which Biden effectively killed in one of his first acts as president, Willow has joined the ranks of fossil fuel projects that in earlier decades would have flown under radar but have now taken on outsized political significance.
The Biden administration is caught in the middle, hyping the Inflation Reduction Act it signed into law as the biggest climate-related legislation ever but also asking companies to keep pumping barrels to keep fuel prices low in the here-and-now. That law has also won praise from the oil and gas sector for its incentives for carbon capture and storage and clean hydrogen – technologies the fossil fuel producers are pursuing.
Raad, from Evergreen Action, said the Willow project “was something that really took the internet and social media by storm the last few weeks – because it is a physical thing and a physical place that feels real.” And that has implications for Biden’s hopes for reelection, he added.
“There’s just no escaping the fact that we’re going to need to rally young folks and folks interested in climate next year to win,” Raad said. “And this does not help in any shape or form.”
As of March 2, environmental advocates were citing 9,000 videos protesting Willow on the social media platform TikTok. Former Vice President Al Gore earlier this week weighed in to say it would be “recklessly irresponsible” to approve Willow.
Deirdre Shelly, campaigns director with the youth environmental group Sunrise Movement, said her organization is already strategizing for the next election and that approving Willow would make organizers’ jobs more difficult.
“This is just a huge disappointment. … It does feel like an about-face,” she said. “It makes it even harder for us to convince young people that they need to vote, that the Democratic Party leaders will act on climate.”
But the administration also felt heavy pressure from the oil industry and the state’s politically powerful Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski has long championed Willow as a needed boost to the Alaskan economy, which has been troubled for years as the overall oil industry has picked up stakes to move to the cheaper opportunities in the Lower 48.
Oil and gas companies and energy-state lawmakers would have been ready to blame the rejection of Willow for any subsequent rise in energy costs, even though the Biden Interior Department has approved new permits to drill on public land at a faster rate than his predecessors.
Murkowski, speaking Friday in Houston before the announcement, said she had met with the White House last week to warn that the administration was legally bound to approve the project, given that Conoco held oil leases on federal land.
“The fact of the matter is these are valid existing leases that Conoco holds,” Murkowski told reporters. “If the administration [had] basically not allowed them to be able to access those leases, what follows then? … Alaska litigation is always something that we have to reckon with.”
Catherine Morehouse contributed to this report.
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