President Joe Biden’s latest move to the center on energy and climate issues has angered both the environmental base he needs for a possible reelection run — and an oil and gas industry that the administration has implored to increase production to prevent another damaging surge in energy prices.
Biden’s decision to allow ConocoPhillips to build its massive Willow oil project on federal land in the Alaska wilderness is causing an uproar among environmentalists who not long ago were praising the president over the billions in climate funding in his signature Inflation Reduction Act. But a separate White House announcement that it would take 16 million acres of Alaska land and Arctic waters off the table for new oil lease sales triggered blowback from the fossil fuel industry, whose relations with Biden appointees had been warming as recently as last week.
The Willow decision is the latest in a series Biden has made that have infuriated members of his own party, including his unwillingness to stop a Republican-led effort to overturn Washington, D.C.’s, crime reform bill and his possible reinstatement of a Trump-era policy on detaining migrants at the border, as the president gets closer to an announcement about his political future.
Environmental groups came out against Biden’s Willow decision fast and hard, saying it will cost him support in a future presidential run.
“He will absolutely be seeing the consequences of this decision in 2024,” said Liv Schroeder, national policy director with the youth environmental group Fridays for Future, who noted that organizers were tweeting they would not vote for Biden. “I think the ramifications on that have already started.”
While the Willow announcement has angered the progressive left, it still won’t alleviate the oil industry’s suspicions that the Biden White House intends to stamp out its main business in the long run, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston who focuses on the politics of energy. The industry may view the news as ConocoPhillips gaining Willow but every other company losing Alaska, he added.
The fossil fuel industry said the Willow project is needed to help maintain U.S. oil production and keep markets well supplied as the United States and Europe shunt Russia — one of the world’s largest oil producers — to the side because of its invasion of Ukraine.
But environmental groups have called the project a “carbon bomb” that will exacerbate climate change as it spews out what the Interior Department estimates to be about 280 million tons of greenhouse gas over its 30-year lifetime. Earthjustice said it is reviewing the administration’s analysis of the project’s environmental impact as a basis for a possible lawsuit.
And the environmental community isn’t buying the administration’s argument that legal considerations, including the fact that ConocoPhillips has held valid leases on these lands for years, forced regulators to allow the Willow project to move forward.
“I don’t think that legal constraints are a valid reason to not do something,” said Collin Rees, the U.S. program manager with the group Oil Change International. “I think that’s honestly just a way to hide behind a terrible decision that they find inexcusable.”
The oil and gas industry welcomed Biden’s call on Willow — but not the administration’s announcement that it would remove U.S. waters in the Arctic Ocean and a further 13 million acres from the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska from future oil lease sales.
“While we appreciate the President recognizing the value of the Willow project, locking up federal lands to future projects is not in the best interests of the country and is not in the best interests of the environment,” said Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil & Gas Association trade group.
Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who had been lobbying the White House to approve Willow, told reporters during a call Monday that Biden’s removal of Alaska acres from new lease sales is a recipe for “future lockups” and is “infuriating.”
Lawmakers past and present viewed the Willow decision as a play for votes in 2024. Billy Long, a Republican former U.S. House member from Missouri, took to Twitter to lampoon what he saw as Biden’s electoral calculus.
“What re-election? I’ve been a Willow fan all along, yeah, that’s the ticket,” Long wrote on Twitter.
Far from seeing the approval of Willow as a pragmatic move to the center for 2024, critics from both the right and left will likely use it as an attack line leading up to election day, said Kevin Book, director at consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners.
“The ability to say to the environmental left that the administration has shut off further Arctic drilling and closed the door behind Willow is not a tack to the center,” Book said. “That’s a decision that seems very likely to draw criticism from Republican challengers as soon as it’s made and until the election.”
Environmental allies said Biden has increasingly attempted to placate the oil and gas industry in decisions that contradict his past campaign promises. In 2020, he pledged to end new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and drastically curb the fossil fuel industry’s influence in American politics.
They noted the administration’s efforts to expedite liquefied natural gas exports to Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the White House’s willingness to tacitly back construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to get moderate West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, and Biden’s approval of more oil and gas drilling permits through November 2022 than former President Donald Trump did in his corresponding time in office.
“That’s been frankly the Democratic conundrum for the last 15 years when it comes to the oil and gas industry,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. “They think there’s a political upside that just doesn’t exist.”
Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate, but a number of senators, including Manchin, face tough 2024 races. Republicans have sought to put the Democrats on defense by calling attention to crime and energy prices, which they contend are spiraling out of control due to Biden’s climate policies.
Biden, who has not officially declared a reelection bid, so far faces no credible challenge for the Democratic Party nomination, a stark difference from 2020. Biden entered that race as an old guard candidate amid a sea of contenders occupying an increasingly leftward flank, which Biden responded to by adopting a much greener platform than he had originally.
Biden has since made good on many of his most ambitious pledges, including signing the nation’s biggest climate law — the Inflation Reduction Act with its $370 billion of climate and clean energy incentives. Greens have also applauded Biden’s securing of new funding for climate projects in the bipartisan infrastructure law, putting the U.S. back into the Paris climate agreement and setting an aggressive climate target to halve emissions by 2030.
Even so, many oil and gas companies stand to benefit from some of Biden’s top accomplishments, such as the billions of dollars in Inflation Reduction Act funding aimed at building hydrogen power facilities, deploying carbon capture technology and installing pipelines to carry carbon dioxide across the country. And Biden administration officials, including Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, were applauding and encouraging these industry efforts just last week at a major oil and gas conference in Houston.
Greens say Willow is a threat to Biden’s climate legacy despite the Inflation Reduction Act and his other climate accomplishments — one that risks alienating a base that Biden and Democratic Senate candidates need to turn out in full force.
“We’re going to push the message that, look, you owe us now,” said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program at the Sierra Club. “This leaves them no wiggle room politically.”
Lena Moffitt, executive director of the environmental group Evergreen Action, called it “unfortunate because we want to be there for [Biden] on those key things. And it just made it harder for us to go out and explain to the American public why they need to join us in having his back there.”
That’s especially true for young voters who swallowed their initial skepticism to eventually rally behind Biden in 2020, Rees said. A surge among young voters and those in communities long exposed to greater levels of pollution, many of which are predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, helped deliver Biden the presidency in key states like Pennsylvania and Arizona. But the Willow decision will rattle the faith of those voters, Rees said.
The president’s Willow decision was a “traditional” centrist move more commonly seen when Biden served in the Senate, but an increasingly rare one in current-day politics, Rice University’s Jones said.
“That’s the definition of a compromise — not everyone’s happy,” Jones said. “But this is an issue that will play better within the general election than with primary voters.”
Josh Siegel contributed to this report.
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