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Biden just broke a big climate promise

The Willow Project is a “carbon bomb” that will complicate Biden’s climate legacy.

Biden Earth Day
The Biden administration approved one of the largest oil developments ever on public land. The decision contradicts his promise on the 2020 campaign trail to approve no new fossil fuel drilling on federal land.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

The same president who passed the nation’s biggest law ever to slash climate pollution may have just undone part of that legacy.

The Biden administration gave the green light on Monday to one of the largest-ever oil projects on public lands. The approval clears the way for one of the world’s largest oil companies, ConocoPhillips, to start construction on the Willow project in northern Alaska in a matter of days. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s estimate, the project could produce up to 614 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years. Construction is likely to begin immediately, though it will take years for the oil to start flowing.

The approval marks the biggest about-face the president has made on his 2020 campaign pledge that he would be “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.”

The administration tried to cushion the blow for climate activists with other moves. Over the weekend, the Biden administration announced that it would protect 16 million acres from offshore and onshore drilling, while putting forward new regulations for ecologically sensitive areas and animals like the caribou.

The Bureau of Land Management, which produced the 120-page record of decision for the approval of the ConocoPhillips project, also slightly shrank the proposal’s initial scope. Ultimately, just three of the five large sections in ConocoPhillips plans can be developed. ConocoPhillips also relinquished 68,000 acres of its existing leases to the federal government.

But anti-Willow Native advocates don’t see these concessions as adequate. “The true cost of the Willow project is to the land and to animals and people forced to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water,” said a statement from Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, an Indigenous grassroots group. “While out-of-state executives take in record profits, local residents are left to contend with the detrimental impacts of being surrounded by massive drilling operations.”

And the climate impacts, activists worry, could be considerable because of how much new oil the Willow project will bring to market when the world can’t afford it in its carbon budget.

The decision encapsulates the Biden administration’s contradictions and constraints when it comes to fighting climate change.

From the administration’s view, Biden has a strong record protecting public lands and he’s limited the impact of this particular project by reducing its scope. Legally, he also faces some limits. Biden can’t easily stop oil companies from drilling on land they’ve already leased, even as the administration has the obligation to weigh the environmental costs and climate impacts. Biden could choose to push the legal fight but has clearly decided against it, handing oil companies a key win.

The Biden administration is trying to have it both ways on climate change

Climate activists and allies have harsh words for the Biden administration’s project approval.

“It’s an abdication of climate leadership that this is actually up for discussion,” said Collin Rees, a campaigner for the advocacy group Oil Change International. “The fact that they would strengthen the fossil fuel industry’s hand and endanger communities is unacceptable.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) described it as “more than a disappointment” and a “gut punch for many of us who have stood by this administration.”

They’re angry for a simple reason: The world already has too much oil and can’t afford more if it has any hope to tackle runaway global warming. “No new oil and natural gas fields are needed” if we’re to reach net zero emissions by 2050, declared a 2021 report by the International Energy Agency — not exactly a radical climate group.

The Willow project takes us in the opposite direction. Over its expected life span, it will add 278 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the equivalent of creating 70 new coal plants for a year, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas calculator. The size alone makes the Willow Project a “carbon bomb” in environmentalists’ view.

It’s not just the size of the development that concerns climate activists, but the timeline. ConocoPhillips expects to be drilling through at least 2050, the same year the world should be at net-zero emissions in order to prevent out-of-control warming.

Compare all that to the legacy of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), by far Biden’s biggest victory on climate change. The law cuts climate pollution by investing billions in clean energy, energy efficiency, and electrification. By 2030, the IRA would cut up to an additional 660 million metric tons of carbon dioxide beyond projected reductions without the law, according to the rosier estimates by Rhodium Group. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does get at the stark contrast between the Willow project’s emissions bomb and the IRA’s objectives.

In the 2020 presidential primary, Biden had signaled a different approach on drilling. He promised to take new drilling and leases off the table on public lands; when Biden enacted a temporary pause to new leasing as president, a federal court blocked it. Ever since, “we’ve seen a walking back of ambition,” Rees said. “He promised a lot of things that haven’t come to pass.”

There’s another way to read the situation — that Biden simply had his hands tied. An administration official told E&E News on Sunday night that the president faced “legal constraints to stop or substantially limit Willow, given ConocoPhillips has held some leases for decades.” The oil industry surely would have contested Biden on those grounds in court if the BLM rejected the permit. Now the administration may face environmentalists in court instead, who will likely challenge the administration’s move.

We’ve seen Biden try to make a similar middle-ground play in climate politics before. He got his climate law, convincing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to support the Inflation Reduction Act. But the administration also threw its weight behind Manchin’s permitting reform bill that would have cleared the way for a gas pipeline project in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia (the bill ultimately failed to get enough votes in the Senate last year).

The cynical way to read Biden’s decision is that he is trying to find a middle path between the activist left and the fossil fuel establishment (and not even doing that successfully the left is angry, and the American Petroleum Institute isn’t rushing to congratulate Biden either, criticizing the “mixed signals” from the administration). The more sympathetic view is that even with a setback like Willow, the sum total of Biden’s actions — including the IRA and its new Arctic offshore protections — outweigh a single project approval.

Either way, it is disappointingly short-term thinking, argues Rep. Huffman. He said a true climate president would reject “new fossil fuel developments like Willow, not some of the time but every time.”

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