Why the Climate President Approved a Climate Bomb
Alaska doesn’t have a popular alternative to drilling — yet.
Joe Biden has been called the “climate president” — and deservedly so. As he boasted during last month’s State of the union address, his Inflation Reduction Act marks “the most significant investment ever to tackle the climate crisis.” Laws enacted during Biden’s tenure have collectively tripled the federal government’s annual spending on fighting climate change.
So it came as a shock to some this week when he greenlit a “climate bomb” of new oil drilling on Alaskan federal land. But Biden was responding to the needs of politicians constrained by the political and economic realities of a fossil-fuel-dependent state. For those disappointed by the Willow project’s approval, it’s worth exploring what might be done to change those realities.
The administration sounded nearly apologetic in approving Willow, which will allow ConocoPhillips to tap into 600 million barrels of oil and could lead to 9.2 million metric tons of additional annual greenhouse gas emissions. “Interior Department Substantially Reduces Scope of Willow Project,” read the administration’s press release – emphasizing that it had denied two of the company’s five requested drilling sites, and forced the company to relinquish 68,000 acres of federal land. And it pointed out that the company’s leases long predated the administration – which may have doomed it to lose in court if it blocked the project. The Department of the Interior paired the Willow announcement with an apparent olive branch to environmentalists by also moving to protect 16 million acres of Arctic land and water from drilling.
Where Interior sheepishly okayed Willow, the decision was fully celebrated by Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, Alaska’s sole member of the House of Representatives. Elected to fill the seat held by a Republican for 50 years, Peltola beat out several opponents — including former Governor Sarah Palin — in an August special election, and again in November to win a full term. Peltola is the first Alaska Native woman to serve in Congress, and the first Democrat Alaska has elected to Congress since 2008.
Peltola campaigned on a number of standard Democratic issues: She supported abortion rights, backed Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, and even endorsed expanding the Supreme Court. But because she represents a state whose economy is highly dependent on fossil fuels, she supported Willow as a source of jobs and wealth for Alaska. Days after entering Congress, Peltola joined a letter with Alaska’s Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan asking the Biden administration to approve Willow.
Peltola advocated for Willow as a matter of justice for Alaskans, framing the project as part of a necessary transition as the country moves away from fossil fuels. “Willow is not a step back — it is an essential step forward in our energy transition,” she toldNewsweek. “Alaska is not an empty snow globe — people live here, and we have needs!” In a CNN op-ed co-authored with Murkowski and Sullivan, Peltola argued that Willow would advance social justice and racial equity: “There is no greater example than the indigenous population of the North Slope asking for this economic development to benefit all their people through self-determination.” And in a solo op-ed, Peltola urged her fellow Democrats to “listen more” to Alaska Natives, who she said had been “hurt by the disregard that we hear from many people who talk about mitigating the energy transition’s impacts on marginalized communities while dismissing the voice of the first Alaska Native representative in Congress.”
Peltola’s appeal on behalf of her state — where the project enjoyed broad support — evidently registered with Biden. She credited an “open mind from the president” in approving a sufficient number of drilling sites for an economically viable project.
This wouldn’t be the first time Biden has shown a willingness to be “energy flexible” to support a vulnerable member of his party. In the coal state of West Virginia, Biden agreed to support Senator Joe Manchin’s coveted natural gas pipeline as part of a permitting reform deal (though their deal was ultimately axed by the rest of Congress).
One lesson here is that oil-and-gas communities like Alaska and West Virginia won’t leave resources in the ground without a ready alternative for their workers and economies. Peltola pushed hard for Willow because her constituents depend on oil and gas for their fuel, their livelihoods, and their tax revenue. That calculus will eventually tip as more renewable energy infrastructure comes online, and more jobs and economic activity attach to it.
The calculus would also tip faster if permitting and siting processes that slow down renewables in Alaska and beyond were streamlined. Alaska is sitting on abundant resources — including hydroelectric, wind, solar, tidal, biomass, and geothermal power. A study by Alaska Climate Alliance found the state’s vast renewable energy potential could create more than 103,000 jobs, far outpacing the roughly 36,000 in fossil fuels. The sooner that clean energy future can be realized, the sooner states like Alaska will be happy to abandon fossil fuels and pipelines.
Until then, when fellow Democrats come to him with a vital local project, Biden is going to listen — even if at some expense to the planet and his administration’s own climate goals. Although it’s worth pointing out it's not clear how much the Willow project will actually wind up hurting. It could produce oil for 30 years, and the Department of Energy anticipates the U.S. continuing to rely on fossil fuels until the middle of the century. However, it will take years for Willow to start producing oil — and The Atlantic’s Emma Marris thinks the whole project could wind up being “obsolete before it’s finished.” Rapid renewables growth over the coming years could render Willow irrelevant if the fossil fuel share of the U.S. energy portfolio shrinks faster than expected.
If that pans out, then the upshot of Biden’s thumbs-up for Willow will look quite different. He will have bought himself some political cover from blame over energy price volatility, while giving a red-state Democrat a boost back home. Meanwhile, the renewable energy transformation will ramp up, both in Alaska and the rest of the United States, fueled by Biden’s legislative accomplishments.
The climate bomb lit by the climate president might turn out to be a climate dud.