Joe Biden continues to confound on the climate crisis. Hailed as America’s first “climate president”, Biden signed sweeping, landmark legislation to tackle global heating last year and has warned that rising temperatures are an “existential threat to humanity”. And yet, on Monday, his administration decided to approve one of the largest oil drilling projects staged in the US in decades.
The green light given to the Willow development on the remote tundra of Alaska’s northern Arctic coast, swatting aside the protests of millions of online petitioners, progressives in Congress and even Al Gore, will have global reverberations.
There are more than 600m barrels of oil available to be dislodged by ConocoPhillips over the next 30 years, effectively adding the emissions of the entire country of Belgium, via just one project, to further heat the atmosphere.
The scale of Willow is vast, with more than 200 oilwells, several new pipelines, a central processing plant, an airport and a gravel mine set to enable the extraction of oil long beyond the time scientists say that wealthy countries should have kicked the habit, in order to avoid disastrous global heating.
Biden’s approval of this is “a colossal and reprehensible stain on his environmental legacy”, according to Raena Garcia, fossil fuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Even a group of Biden’s Democratic allies, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, attacked the decision as ignoring “the voices of the people of Nuiqsut, our frontline communities, and the irrefutable science that says we must stop building projects like this to slow the ever more devastating impacts of climate change”.
But the approval of the project is consistent with an administration that has approved nearly 100 more oil and gas drilling leases than Donald Trump had at the same point in his presidency, federal data shows. Biden may have promised “no more drilling on federal lands, period” during his presidential campaign, but the reality has been very different – not only have the hydrocarbons continued to flow, they are in a sort of boom, with both oil and gas production forecast to hit record levels year.
The White House can point out it is in the middle of a set of confusing, and often contradictory, set of circumstances. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine roiled global energy markets and triggered a push to build new export terminals to ship US oil and gas to European allies, even as Biden toiled to pass $370bn in clean energy spending in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Younger, progressive voters have urged the administration to do more on climate – the youth-led Sunrise movement said the Willow decision “abandons millions of young people” ahead of the 2024 election – even as Republicans have continued to hammer Biden for waging a supposed “war” on domestic energy and blamed him for rising gasoline prices.
A series of court challenges, and a closely divided Congress, have also forced Biden’s hand. All members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, including newly elected Democrat Mary Peltola, called for Willow to be approved, citing thousands of new jobs. “We all recognize the need for cleaner energy, but there is a major gap between our capability to generate it and our daily needs,” Peltola wrote in an op-ed on Friday with Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, the Republican senators from Alaska.
Biden himself appears to share this view – in his recent State of the Union speech, the president said “we’re going to need oil for at least another decade”, before adding “and beyond that”, after boos from some lawmakers. This sort of “rhetorical dualism [is] a call for ‘one last fossil bender before America goes green and sober’”, according to a note by analysts at ClearView Energy Partners on Sunday.
Administration officials have stressed that the allowable Willow project is smaller than ConocoPhillips hoped, with three drilling sites allowed instead of the five proposed, and have signaled that the company would have probably prevailed in a court challenge if the project was rejected, given it has held leases in the region for more than 20 years.
The Department of the Interior has also unveiled proposed rules it has framed as a “firewall” against further drilling, with all of the US’s Arctic Ocean off-limits to future oil and gas exploration, as well as the blocking of leases on more than half of the 23m acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a vast area of the North Slope that contains wildlife considered imperative for the subsistence of local native communities.
This conservation action, appropriately announced in a whiplash-inducing way the day before the Willow decision was made public, shows that Biden “continues to deliver on the most aggressive climate agenda in American history”, the interior department claimed.
“Let’s be clear – this project, which the interior department has substantially reduced in size under considerable legal constraints, won’t stop us from achieving the ambitious clean energy goals president Biden has set,” an administration official said on Monday.
But critics point out that the brutal reality of Earth’s climate system doesn’t recognize political expediency or future good intentions. The International Energy Agency, among others, has warned that no new oil and gas fields can be developed if the world is to avoid breaching temperature thresholds that scientists say will tip the planet into increasingly dangerous heatwaves, flooding, wildfires and other impacts.
For all of the new wind and solar projects spurred by last year’s climate bill, and Biden’s enthusiastic promotion of electric vehicles, Willow is a sobering reality check – the project will wipe out the emissions cuts provided by all renewable energy developments over the next decade, adding the equivalent of 2m new gas-guzzling cars to the roads.
“We don’t need to prop up the fossil fuel industry with new, multi-year projects that are a recipe for climate chaos,” as Gore told the Guardian on Friday. “Instead, we must end the expansion of oil, gas and coal and embrace the abundant climate solutions at our fingertips.”
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