Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy


Why the Climate President Approved a Climate Bomb

Alaska doesn’t have a popular alternative to drilling — yet.

Oil rig photo on snowy backdrop.
Heatmap illustration/Getty Images

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.

Joel Dodge profile image

Joel Dodge

Joel Dodge is an attorney, policy advisor, and writer. His writing on policy and politics has appeared in numerous publications, and he has advised several candidates for office on policy. Follow him on Twitter


Why Republicans Grilled the Energy Secretary About UFOs

You have to get creative when you allege a “war on energy” during an oil boom.

Jennifer Granholm and UFOs.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When Donald Trump met with a group of oil executives at Mar-a-Lago last month, his message was somewhere between “refreshingly blunt” and “blatant shakedown.” Attendees spilled to The Washington Post that Trump told the executives they should raise a billion dollars for his campaign so he could make them even richer by reducing their taxes and removing regulations on their industry.

One can’t help but wonder if any of them thought to themselves that as appealing as that kind of deal might be, there’s no reason for them to be desperate. After all, the Biden years have actually been quite good for the fossil fuel industry.

Keep reading...Show less

Biden’s Long Game on Climate

The president isn’t trying to cut emissions as fast possible. He’s doing something else.

President Biden playing chess.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Here’s the problem with President Joe Biden’s climate policy: From a certain point of view, it makes no sense.

Take his electricity policy. At the top level, Biden has committed to eliminating greenhouse-gas pollution from the power sector by 2035. He wants to accomplish this largely by making clean energy cheaper — that’s the goal of the Inflation Reduction Act, of course — and he has also changed federal rules so it’s slightly easier to build power lines and large-scale renewable projects. He has also added teeth to that goal in the form of new Environmental Protection Agency rules cracking down on coal and natural gas.

Keep reading...Show less

AM Briefing: Greenlight for Geoengineering?

On the return of geoengineering, climate lawsuits, and a cheaper EV.

Sunrise over a mountain.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Battered Midwest in for more bad weather this weekend • Tornadoes keep hitting the Great Plains • A heat wave in New Delhi that pushed temperatures above 116 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday is expected to last several more days.


1. Red states challenge climate lawsuits

Nineteen Republican-led states are asking the Supreme Court to stop Democrat-led states from trying to force oil and gas companies to pay for the impacts of climate change. Rhode Island in 2018 became the first state to sue major oil companies for climate damages and has since been joined by California, Connecticut, Minnesota, and New Jersey. The states pursuing legal action against oil companies are trying to “dictate the future of the American energy industry,” the Republican attorneys general argued in a motion filed this week, “not by influencing federal legislation or by petitioning federal agencies, but by imposing ruinous liability and coercive remedies on energy companies” through the court system.

Keep reading...Show less