Joe Biden Accused of Trashing His Climate Credentials

President Joe Biden risks undermining his record on the environment and threatening his credibility as a global leader on climate change after approving a new drilling project in Alaska's northernmost region, campaigners said ahead of Monday's announcement.

The administration has granted the go-ahead to the Willow Project, which is projected to produce as much as 180,000 barrels of oil a day—roughly 1.5 percent of total U.S. production—though with the scope of the project reduced.

While activists have hit out at the plans for the estimated 278 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions the project will bring over the course of its 30-year lifespan, it has received bipartisan support from lawmakers in the state over the huge economic benefit it will bring to local communities.

ConocoPhillips, the company which proposed the project, estimates that it would create 2,500 construction jobs and 300 permanent roles, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) believes the Willow Project could generate up to $17 billion in additional revenues for the federal and state governments.

Stop Willow Joe Biden climate protest
Climate activist hold a demonstration to urge President Joe Biden to reject the Willow Project at the U.S. Department of Interior on November 17, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Biden is expected to approve the new oil drilling project this week. Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Sunrise AU

The company proposed five drilling sites in the state's North Slope as part of the project—in what would have been the largest of its kind in the region in more than two decades—after making a "significant" new oil discovery in the remote region in January 2017. However, the BLM recommended just three sites for approval in February.

The U.S. Department of the Interior said on Monday that the project would be allowed to go ahead with just three drilling sites, as had been recommended by the BLM, and ConocoPhillips—Alaska's largest oil producer—would cede 68,000 acres of its existing leases in the Natural Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

A map of the revised project by the BLM showed the land is to be relinquished to the south and north of the Willow Project's operating region. It also dispensed of the two sites furthest north and south, as well as the roads that would have led to them.

In its record of decision, the BLM said it "has adopted all practicable means to
avoid or minimize environmental harm from the alternative selected and will implement a monitoring and enforcement program for these requirements."

It added that the approval "does not constitute the final approval for all actions," including permits to drill.

Reacting to the news, Abigail Dillen, president of U.S.-based environmental organization Earthjustice, said: "We are too late in the climate crisis to approve massive oil and gas projects that directly undermine the new clean economy that the Biden Administration committed to advancing.

"We know President Biden understands the existential threat of climate, but he is approving a project that derails his own climate goals," she added.

Following reports on Friday that Biden administration officials had decided to authorize the project, environmental campaigners had urged the president to reconsider the proposals.

"Your climate legacy is on the line," Trustees for Alaska, a local environmental protection organization, told Biden on Friday. It added: "Any approval of this new ConocoPhillips oil and gas project would undermine POTUS's climate, biodiversity, environmental justice goals and the health of the Arctic and planet."

Newsweek has reached out to the White House for comment.

"He's worried about reelection, of course," Roger Karapin, a professor of environmental policy at Hunter College in New York City, told Newsweek, referring to Biden. "He was worried about the 2022 midterms, and he's worried about the criticism that he's anti-fossil fuels."

The Department of the Interior, which has the ultimate say over the Willow Project's go-ahead, previously said it had "substantial concerns" about it, including "direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence."

On Sunday, it announced that the Biden administration had decided to implement "sweeping" protections for up to 16 million acres of land and water in Alaska, including placing 2.8 million acres of the Natural Petroleum Reserve-Alaska—where the Willow venture is planned—off-limits indefinitely for oil and gas leasing.

Oil rig north slope alaska
The BP North Star oil station in the North Slope, the northernmost region of Alaska, as seen on June 6, 2003. The Willow project would see new drilling stations built in the region, and could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day. Damian Gillie/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

In a statement, the Interior Department referenced protecting the natural habitats of the North Slope's wildlife and the natural amenities that Native Alaskan communities have lived off for millennia.

"With these actions, President Biden continues to deliver on the most aggressive climate agenda in American history," it added.

The announcement resembled concessions CNN previously reported were being considered by the administration to minimize criticism of any approval, including boosting conservation elsewhere in the state.

"We need aggressive climate action—not mixed messaging," the Northern Alaska Environmental Center tweeted on Sunday.

Speaking to Newsweek last week, Mary Peltola, Alaska's at-large Democrat congresswoman—who has thrown her support behind the project—confirmed that the project had already been "scaled down and reworked significantly."

She defended Biden by arguing that oil will still be required in the transition to a green economy, and producing oil at home was less environmentally costly than importing it. "Willow is not a step back—it is an essential step forward in our energy transition," Peltola remarked.

The project has also earned the support of Alaska's two Republican senators—Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan—who cited its economic benefits, as well as the unanimous backing of the state's legislature.

ConocoPhillips welcomed news of the approval. In a statement, Ryan Lance, the company's chairman and chief executive officer said it was "the right decision for Alaska and our nation."

"Willow fits within the Biden Administration's priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security," he added.

"Some activists are not going to like it; they're going to be dissatisfied," Karapin commented. "But what are they going to do in 2024? Are they going to vote for the Republicans? Are they going to stay home and let Trump or DeSantis win the White House?"

Update 03/13/23, 11:34 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include further details of the Biden administration's approval of the Willow Project, as well as comment from ConocoPhillips and Roger Karapin.