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When Joe Biden was a candidate to be his party’s nominee for President, he ran as one of the biggest foes of fossil fuels ever to make a credible run for the White House. He pledged to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050, ween the country off dirty sources of energy and “end fossil fuel.” He canceled the high-profile Keystone XL pipeline, took millions of acres of possible drilling off the table by scrapping leases to oil and gas companies, and banned imports of Russian oil. He even threatened oil firms with a windfall tax and likened them to war profiteers.
Environmental groups went gaga over his rhetoric and action alike, buoying his political alliances and giving climate change activists heart after years of broken promises.
And yet, a unique alignment of political and geological confluences may spur Biden in the coming days to do something that will leave those same green allies seeing red.
Biden’s administration is nearing a final decision on a potentially game-changing oil and gas project that has now been under consideration across five presidencies. The proposed Willow project in the northeast section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska would produce 180,000 barrels of oil each day, create $10 billion in tax and royalty revenues, and create 2,000 construction jobs and 300 permanent ones. The massive project would require as many as five drilling sites, a processing facility, 50 miles of new roads, seven bridges, and an airstrip.
Local groups, including those representing Alaska Natives, as well as labor unions and the state’s congressional delegation, have all championed the project as a source of good union jobs and money for Alaska’s North Slope.
But environmental groups and some Native American groups from the Lower 48 oppose the ConocoPhillips project, citing an Interior Department analysis that estimates it would emit at least 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime and during construction. It also would endanger the local wildlife like polar bears. On Thursday, a coalition of environmental groups—represented by a PR firm with deep ties to the Biden Administration—plans to rally at Lafayette Square across from the White House before delivering another 90,000 comments in opposition to the proposal, which they liken to 76 coal plants running for a year. (Industry groups heartily reject this comparison, noting it compares a lifetime of direct and indirect emissions from Willow with one coal plant’s annual emissions.)
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If they can’t kill it, the green groups are pushing a scaled-back project, one that would cut three of the proposed five drill sites and better protect calving grounds for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou.
A White House spokesman did not have an immediate comment.
The Willow proposal dates back to 1999, when the Clinton Administration signed the lease on Alaska’s North Slope. Oil wasn’t discovered there until 2017, and the Trump Administration quickly approved the project. Biden’s team seemed to agree with that thinking, at least until a judge said the environmental costs were not adequately considered and environmental groups separately sounded alarms. A Department of Interior draft impact study released in July appeared to game out how to move forward with the project, although supporters and opponents alike stressed that it was still very much in flux.
There’s good reason to suspect Biden is poised to make a decision on the Willow project. Because of Alaska’s treacherous conditions, much of the construction needs to happen during the winter months, when the roads are frozen and can accommodate heavy traffic. Warmer temperatures create messy roads that could pause work. In other words, if Biden doesn’t sign off on the project soon, it will languish for another year.
“We’re running out of time to be able to do construction this winter,” says Nagruk Harcharek, the new president of Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, a regional council advocating for North Slope communities. “A lot of the construction on the North Slope requires the winter season for ice roads. And if we get too far into February, they’ll have to put it off until next year.”
That would mean delayed—if not totally unrealized—revenue for local governments and allies, the kind of money that proponents say could prove transformative for a region that isn’t exactly teeming with new opportunities. “We want to be able to live in the communities that we have so that we can then practice our subsistence culture and be able to go out and hunt in our lands that we grew up on,” Harcharek told me last week. “I remember growing up as a kid, we used to have honey buckets and we’d have to haul those out. Now we can flush our toilets.”
Biden, coming off a less-disappointing-than-expected midterm election season, may be better positioned to disappoint environmental groups than at any point in his presidency. The 2022 elections are barely in his rearview mirror, the 2024 races are still distant, and he can afford to take some incoming criticism from his friends. His allies are bracing for a potential decision, even if they still defend his broader environmental record as one to celebrate.
Playing into Biden’s decision-making here is the different promises he made as a candidate. While waging rhetorical war on the fossil fuel industry, he also vowed to listen to local communities, including Alaska Natives. As President, he promised to consider Native Americans’ requests and pledged to make sure they were on equal footing. So it’s hard for him to ignore that Alaska Natives are overwhelmingly in support of the project. Within days of her taking office over the summer, Rep. Mary Peltola—the first Alaska Native elected to serve in Congress and a Democrat—urged the Interior Department to approve the project as a way to demonstrate “the Administration’s commitment to addressing inflation, high energy costs, the need for greater energy security, and environmental justice initiatives.”
Ultimately, this is going to be Biden’s call, and his most enviro-minded advisers may have to calibrate their ambitions for scaling back the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels as energy prices remain high and the demand for cheap and easy power is not fading.
Biden’s campaign rhetoric won over younger voters and green ones, too. But the trail is one thing, and the art of governing is another one altogether. In that, Biden may have to compromise his own aspirations and accept a new oil drilling regime in a state already threatened mightily by climate change. It is unlikely to be a good look among the green activists, but Biden simply may be out of ways to dodge on this one.
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