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Biden’s Climate Betrayal

On the campaign, Biden promised “no more drilling on federal lands, period.” In office, he’s approved drilling leases faster than Donald Trump.

President Biden and an Alaskan landscape.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

After hemming and hawing for weeks, the Biden administration has approved ConocoPhillips’ proposed Willow oil drilling project in northern Alaska. Once completed, the project will reportedly produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil per day.

It’s not as bad as it could have been. The lease area is 40 percent smaller than the company originally wanted, with three drilling sites instead of five. ConocoPhillips will also give up 68,000 acres of other leases in the area.

But this is still an enormous betrayal of Biden’s specific campaign promises and his climate goals.

Biden committed to reducing American greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and part of that plan is a massive expansion of federal land leases for renewable energy projects. That is indeed happening, but as Jenny Rowland-Shea points out at the Center for American Progress, this one single project more than offsets all the climate benefits from those renewable leases, by a lot. If operated for 30 years as planned, burning the 600 million barrels of oil Willow is estimated to contain will create more than 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or roughly what Spain produces in a year. As she writes, “allowing the Willow project to proceed would result in double the carbon pollution that all renewable progress on public lands and waters would save by 2030.”

The Willow area is also one of the last mostly untouched large pieces of wilderness in the country. Now it’s going to have hundreds of miles of roads, plus pollution-spewing and extremely loud equipment, scattered all over it (not to mention the risk of oil spills). As former Vice President Al Gore told The Guardian, the project “is incompatible with the ambition we need to achieve a net zero future. We don’t need to prop up the fossil fuel industry with new, multi-year projects that are a recipe for climate chaos.”

During the 2020 campaign, Biden specifically promised not to do this, saying “no more drilling on federal lands, period.” In office he’s actually approved drilling leases at a faster pace than Donald Trump.

It’s a grim irony that because northern Alaska is one of the places climate change is hitting worst, with warming roughly triple the world average causing widespread melting of the permafrost, ConocoPhillips is going to have to use “chillers” to keep the roads at the Willow project frozen. Hard to imagine a better metaphor for the damage our addiction to fossil fuels causes — like a junkie getting vein reconstruction surgery so he can shoot up more fentanyl.

It’s not hard to see why the Biden administration would approve this project, along with all the other drilling leases. The whole Alaskan congressional delegation was behind the project on the grounds of jobs and money. Even local native communities were split on the question. Americans are also extremely sensitive about the price of gasoline — particularly thanks to our habit, enabled by federal regulators, of driving colossal gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks —and tend to reflexively blame the president whenever it goes up.

ConocoPhillips has also owned these leases for decades now, and the administration would have been in for a legal battle had it denied the project. Given the right-wing infiltration of the courts, it wouldn’t have been an easy fight. The administration has already lost several similar legal battles, and has faced pressure from Congress to approve more drilling.

But these are pitiful excuses. Even such an enormous project will have little effect on the global price of oil — 180,000 barrels per day is only about 0.2 percent of total oil production. It will also take six years to bring any oil to market. Nobody filling up their Ford F-350 Super Duty will see a difference today and they’ll be hard pressed to notice 10 cents of savings when filling up their 34 gallon tank in the future.

And while it might have been a legal nightmare to block the project, it still would have been worth trying. As a rule, the court system is extremely expensive and takes forever to do anything, and every week of delay would given Biden more time to get his judges appointed, allowed the electric vehicle revolution to progress a bit further, and raised the chance of ConocoPhillips cutting its losses and giving up.

At any rate, this dismal story still underlines the case for transitioning away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Even politicians like Biden who seem to understand the climate crisis blanch at the prospect of shutting down carbon drilling while so many people and businesses depend on it. We saw this in Europe as well in the initial stages of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with Germany scrambling to turn on mothballed coal power plants to keep the lights on (though as I previously wrote, the continent has since stampeded towards renewable energy, in part because even coal is much more expensive than renewables now).

The sooner we can kick the carbon habit, the easier it will be to block drilling projects. Hopefully someday soon they won’t even make economic sense — maybe even before Willow’s 30 years is up.

Ryan Cooper profile image

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics."


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