U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday greenlighted a massive oil drilling project on federal land in Alaska, eliciting outrage from climate advocates who say the administration's accompanying restrictions on oil and gas leasing in the region cannot make up for the destruction set to be unleashed by the approved Willow project.
Progressives sought for months to dissuade Biden from approving ConocoPhillips' $8 billion Willow project, noting that it could enable the production of more than 600 million barrels of crude over 30 years. If all of that oil is burned, roughly 280 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions will be spewed into the atmosphere at a time when United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warns that the planet is reaching a "point of no return."
"There is simply no justification for President Biden's decision to approve a massive new oil drilling scheme that will lead to decades of air and climate pollution," Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement.
"This decision is part of a disturbing and disappointing trend with this White House," Hauter continued. "President Biden refuses to take the necessary actions to rein in climate catastrophe while issuing rhetoric that professes concern for the existential threat that we all face. He cannot have it both ways. Promoting clean energy development is meaningless if we continue to allow corporations to plunder and pollute as they wish."
"President Biden refuses to take the necessary actions to rein in climate catastrophe while issuing rhetoric that professes concern for the existential threat that we all face."
In what The New York Timesdescribed as a bid "to temper criticism over the Willow decision and, as one administration official put it, to form a 'firewall' to limit future" fossil fuel development in the region, Biden announced restrictions on offshore oil lease sales in the Arctic Ocean and across Alaska's North Slope, while the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) "said it would issue new rules to block oil and gas leasing in more than 13 million of the 23 million acres that form the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska," where the Willow project is located.
But given the overwhelming scientific evidence—and warnings from even the relatively conservative International Energy Agency—that new fossil fuel projects are incompatible with averting the worst consequences of the planetary emergency, climate justice campaigners rejected the president's attempt to soften the blow of his Willow approval by announcing new protections for areas surrounding the extraction site.
"It's insulting that Biden thinks this will change our minds about the Willow project," Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. "Protecting one area of the Arctic so you can destroy another doesn't make sense, and it won't help the people and wildlife who will be upended by the Willow project. We need to protect the entire Arctic and stop building massive oil and gas developments that will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions for years to come."
"Biden approved Willow knowing full well that it'll cause massive and irreversible destruction, which is appalling," said Monsell. "People and wildlife will suffer, and extracting and burning more fossil fuel will warm the climate even faster. Biden has no excuse for letting this project go forward in any form. New Arctic drilling makes no sense, and we'll fight hard to keep ConocoPhillips from breaking ground."
As the Times reported, the Biden administration "said it would approve permits for three drilling sites and deny two others, including one that would have been closest to a coastal wetland known as Teshekpuk Lake. The administration also said it would deny permission to build a road that would have led to the fourth drilling site."
"In addition to rejecting two of the proposed drilling sites, the administration also announced that ConocoPhillips would return about 68,000 acres of existing leases to the government," the Times reported. "Officials said they believe that would prevent the company from trying to expand oil drilling in the region beyond the Willow project."
Although the DOI's "environmental analysis raised 'substantial concerns' about emissions, danger to freshwater sources, and threats to migratory birds, caribou, whales, and other animals that inhabit the region... the administration concluded that it doesn't have the legal authority to deny permits to ConocoPhillips, which has long held leases on the land in the petroleum reserve," the newspaper reported, citing two unnamed sources.
The Revolving Door Project's climate research director, Dorothy Slater, condemned the White House for "prematurely ma[king] the decision they thought courts might insist on," calling it a "weak-hearted capitulation to corporate interests" and a "historic abnegation of responsibility."
"The Interior Department does in fact have the legal authority to deny permits for a project that they have substantial concerns about," said Slater. "If the case did go to court, the administration could leverage the significant resources of the Justice Department to defend their decision stridently, using every tool in their arsenal to protect the Arctic wilderness and give us a fighting chance to avoid the worst of climate change."
"Simply what is executive power for, if not protecting the future of this planet?" she asked.
Monsell stressed that "even one new oil well in the Arctic is one well too many."
"If Biden wants to protect the Arctic, he needs to protect all of it," she added. "The president has left us in the cold and missed a major opportunity to live up to his climate commitments. This project is on weak legal ground, and we're gearing up for action."
Earthjustice president Abigail Dillen echoed that sentiment, telling the Times that the Biden administration's "tinkering at the margins... won't remedy legal failures to address this project's outside harms and we expect to see them in court."